High-stakes oil pipeline projects have taken a public lashing lately, whether in a plebiscite in British Columbia, more protests in Washington, D.C., or from a former U.S. president and several Nobel laureates coming out strongly against billion-dollar plans to move the diluted  bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to international markets.

The anti-pipeline pressure has been mounting for a while, but observers say that the ramped-up opposition to the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL proposals is no coincidence.

Rather, the turmoil is a result of a confluence of issues ranging from deep-seated environmentalism and concern about climate change to the aggressive tactics of energy companies and governments that want to see the pipes in the ground sooner than later.

Toss in some politics — midterm elections in the U.S. this fall, and anticipation of the federal decision on Enbridge's $5.5-billion Northern Gateway project within a few weeks — and conditions have become ripe for ever more public push-back.

"I certainly don't see any chance of the opposition receding," says Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia who holds a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law.

On the West Coast, in particular, he says, the roots of protest run deep.

In the psyche

"People in the rest of Canada need to understand the environmental movement was born in British Columbia, and it has a deep history here and is very wide-reaching," says Byers.

"It's almost part of the collective psyche here on the West Coast and that's something that Enbridge clearly did not understand, and that the Harper government at least for its first four or five years did not understand.

"And when you add that to the unextinguished aboriginal rights, and the lack of appropriate consultation that took place, you have almost a perfect storm for opposition to pipelines."

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Northern Gateway Pipelines president John Carruthers listens during the Northern Gateway hearings in Prince Rupert in December 2012. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

In Kitimat, B.C., the coastal community that would serve as the endpoint of Northern Gateway, and the place where supertankers would fill up with Alberta bitumen, residents recently voted "No" to the project.

The plebiscite isn't binding on anyone, but it sent a signal, and left Enbridge with another reminder it might have done things differently in the early days of the project.

"Something we've certainly learned is that we definitely needed an earlier, stronger presence on the ground," says John Carruthers, president of Northern Gateway Pipelines.

"We have had an office in Kitimat since 2008, but I think the key is you have to be there early and you have to be there often to work with people and build trust and provide information about what we are doing to address the concerns."

Changing the route

Carruthers says the company has won support in instances where it has sat down, talked with people and come up with solutions for particular issues such as river crossings.

"We made a number of changes to the route based on public input."

Responding to concerns from aboriginal groups, Enbridge revised 24 crossings, including for the Pembina, Athabasca, Smoky and Murray rivers, according to the joint panel review for the project.

Northern Gateway Vote

Enbridge's Northern Gateway Project would bring diluted bitumen from Alberta to the deepwater port in Kitimat, B.C., where it would be loaded on supertankers and shipped to Asia. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Carruthers says that between 2009 and 2013, there were "tens of thousands of exchanges with stakeholders through face-to-face meetings, coffee chats, presentations, public forums, technical meetings, community meetings, Community Advisory Boards, blogs, social media sites, receptions, community investment events, emails, telephone calls, letters, advertisements and website postings."

Enbridge's approach to working with communities is an "evolving process,"  he says. "It doesn't stop with the plebiscite. It doesn't stop with the joint review panel recommendation, or even the decision by the federal government.

"It’s ongoing, so there will be continued consultation, discussions, all the way through the process."

However, Byers says there was a lack of serious consultation by Enbridge with the coastal First Nations in the early going, and that "is a mistake that both Enbridge and the Harper government must rue to this day. Essentially that failure to take aboriginal rights seriously in those early years I think created a situation today where the project cannot proceed."

He sees "more sensitivity" being shown around discussions of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain project to expand capacity of an existing pipeline running from Alberta through the Fraser Valley to Burnaby, B.C.

"Kinder Morgan has made a significant public outreach effort. The Harper government has not weighed in with the same degree of passion and divisiveness that it did on Northern Gateway."

Another Exxon Valdez?

As Byers sees it, the big issue of climate change figures prominently in this debate, particularly for environmentalists. "But for the person on the street, the concern is about a repeat of the Exxon Valdez." 

"That oil spell happened just north of Kitimat on the southwestern coast of Alaska and people here look at the fact that oil continues to be found along the Alaskan coastline from that spill more than two decades later."

For his part, Byers sees some distinction between the kind of opposition that these pipeline projects in B.C. have garnered with that exerted on TransCanada's $7.6-billion US Keystone XL project, which would pipe Alberta bitumen to the Texan Gulf Coast. "With Keystone XL, the debate is mostly about climate."

A presidential decision on Keystone XL has been delayed again, and won't likely come until after the Nov. 4 midterm elections, which some are seeing as a win for its opponents.

For environmental groups that want fossil fuel production to stop, "slowing down crude infrastructure is actually one of the politically easiest targets," says James Coleman, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary's faculty of law and Haskayne School of Business.

Coleman sees a "dramatic" increase in the push-back against pipelines, something he attributes to several factors, including increased pressure for climate regulation, along with a desire for increased to "takeaway capacity" from Alberta because of the increased production there.

Times change

"People sometimes forget Keystone XL is just the second part. There was an original Keystone pipeline that was approved in the U.S. in 2008 and was defended by President [Barack] Obama's administration," says Coleman.

"But the dramatic thing is that pipeline was approved with no consideration at all of the climate effects of increased oil production."

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Native Americans, farmers, ranchers and cowboys rally to protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (Alex Panetta/Canadian Press)

Now, a few years later, he notes, there's a section of the U.S. environmental impact statement on Keystone XL devoted to the greenhouse gas output of increased oilsands production, and President Barack Obama says the key factor determining the project's fate is whether it's going to increase greenhouse gas emissions because of increased oilsands production.

"It’s all about climate change. It’s not the pipe itself," says Richard Dixon, executive director of  the centre for applied business research in energy and the environment at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

"The issue is what's going through the pipe," he says, and how that has become a symbol of dealing with climate change.

"It's not about the amount of emissions. I mean, we're one-10th of one per cent of world emissions. It's negligible."

Finding the weak link

Dixon says the opposition to pipelines has become more organized, and that more environmental groups are involved. Environmentalists have also identified the "weak link" energy companies have in their efforts to be sustainable: access to markets.

"So they've focused on that and as they've gained more and more strength, they're able to then focus on the issue of climate change."

That was the focus of a letter signed by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and a group of Nobel laureates who urged Obama to reject Keystone XL.

The letter sent earlier this month says the president's decision will either signal a "dangerous commitment" to the status quo, or "bold leadership" that will inspire millions counting on him to do the right thing for the climate.

Dixon argues, though, that "if the goal of the environmentalists is to get us off oil, in fact, it's doing the opposite," as the public opposition is prompting energy companies to improve pipeline technology.

"It will make sure that our pipelines are safe so that you can't really complain about them. So that's the irony of it — that it will improve pipeline technology. Quite an irony actually."

With files from The Associated Press