What would you say if a company with an arguably poor environmental track record asked to put a pipeline to pump some of the most environmentally damaging oil on the planet through your pristine backyard so that oil could then be loaded onto arguably unsafe tankers in waters generally understood to be treacherous at best? You’d probably tell them to get fucked fast.
This is precisely what a half dozen environmental organization, 61 First Nations and a handful of municipalities directly affected by Enbridge Inc.’s proposed 1,170 kilometre “Northern Gateway” pipeline in northern British Columbia have said, and in no uncertain terms. Despite the opposition to the pipeline itself, and formidable opposition on the part of four out of five British Columbians to even allowing oil tankers in coastal waters, our federal government is backing the plan.
The Northern Gateway pipeline would pump crude from northern Alberta’s tar sands operations to Kitimat, B.C.. From there, tankers would navigate notoriously dangerous waters into the Pacific, and then on to China. Currently an unofficial moratorium exists on tankers in coastal waters, as many residents remember all too well the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska. Stephen Harper, for his part, has let it be known that that key word in “unofficial moratorium” is “unofficial.”
Sixty-one First Nations from the Fraser River watershed in northern interior B.C. have voiced their staunch opposition to the project, as they fear that spills or leaks from the pipeline would irreparably damage salmon runs and negatively impact their Aboriginal rights in the area. As many, if not all, of these First Nations are still without treaty agreements with Canada, Aboriginal title to the land remains with the First Nations. Regardless, the Crown owes First Nations a duty to consult prior to moving forward with any development that might impact that title.
Nine First Nations on the west coast declared an outright ban on oil tankers in their traditional territory earlier this year — a move that was backed up shortly thereafter by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, who ratified a resolution against Enbridge’s pipeline pipedream.
Despite all of this, Enbridge’s website for the Northern Gateway project still maintains that they are “working cooperatively with Aboriginal communities to ensure they have the opportunity to meaningfully benefit from the project over the long term.” The federal government is clearly standing on this side of the fence as well.
Which isn’t surprising. A company hoping to sell its product is going to put on the best front possible, even if it’s farcical. Our federal government’s position on environmental issues is much the same — almost entirely void of meaningful substance while promoting the economy above, as opposed to a part of, the environment.
In the oil game, the only thing that matters is cold, hard cash — much like real life. As far back as the 1920s, Upton Sinclair had nailed the game in his creative non-fiction novel Oil! However, while Sinclair’s novel offers some hope for those interested in social justice, I doubt ol’ Upton ever fathomed a beast as ghastly as the Alberta tar sands, nor the multinational backing such a beast would enjoy in the age of globalized Earth-rape.
As big a beast as the apocalyptic machinery in Fort McMurray and its far reaching tentacles may be, it is still beholden to the tried and true laws of capitalism — supply and motherfucking demand.
Currently, other oil players are calling Enbridge’s hand. According to Kinder Morgan, another major pipeline company, the proposal is seriously flawed. A lawyer for Kinder Morgan claims that Enbridge is not meeting the requirements set out by the National Energy Board, and that Enbridge is punching above its weight. Apparently, Enbridge has no proven clients for the pipeline and that the pipeline as proposed would create an overcapacity for its services — in effect over supplying the market.
And still, our prime minister is backing the plan. The Harper government has always been buddy-buddy with the oil industry — check the rhetoric coming from his office and from the new Environment Minister Peter Kent if there’s any doubt in your mind — so this comes as no surprise. His playing the U.S. demand for oil off the Chinese, however, is interesting. But will it pay off?
Now, that’s harder to say, given the current opposition to the project and the potential legalities involved with opposing First Nations. What is for sure, as always, is that money talks and bullshit walks. If the proposal passes the Joint Panel Review — which the long-debated Mackenzie Valley Pipeline recently did, despite much Aboriginal and local opposition — and Enbridge can sell their crude to the Chinese, we’ll be sure to see plenty of shovels in the ground between Edmonton and Kitimat before long.
Sheldon Birnie is in his fourth year of environmental studies at the U of M.