To reach the Pacific Ocean, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline would have to cross some of Canada’s most rugged terrain – 1,177 kilometres of pipeline constructed across the towering Rocky Mountains, remote valleys and rugged wilderness. But the daunting engineering challenges are shaping up to be nothing compared to the landscape of anti-pipeline opposition standing in Enbridge’s way.
Any project of this magnitude inherently comes with almost guaranteed opposition, but the opposition in B.C. to Northern Gateway appears to be substantially greater than proponents expected. The voices against Enbridge are more than drowning out the faint chorus of groups in B.C. who support it.
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Some are suggesting it will be this generation’s "War in the Woods," a reference to the battle to protect B.C.'s old-growth forests from clear-cut logging 20 years ago. In fact, Tzeporah Berman, one of the province’s best-known environmentalists who cut her teeth in that successful campaign against logging, has suggested she thinks this fight will be even bigger.
The political reaction in B.C. to Ottawa’s approval of Northern Gateway reflects that kind of opposition.
The B.C. Liberal government, normally gung-ho on resource development, has gone to great lengths to emphasize that it is not onboard with Enbridge's pipeline plan as it stands now. The province’s Environment Minister notes that although the pipeline would come with significant economic benefits, she still wouldn’t approve it at the expense of B.C’s natural environment.
All that said, the B.C. government hasn’t completely closed the door.
Although the project doesn’t meet Premier Christy Clark’s five conditions for heavy oil pipeline approval now – requirements like world class oil spill response, First Nations consultations and a fair share of the economic benefits – she isn’t saying that it never will.
This lack of a definitive "no" has opposition politicians in B.C. calling on Clark’s government to slam the door shut on Enbridge.
Noted climate scientist turned Green Party M.L.A. Andrew Weaver suggested Tuesday that stringing people along and waiting to see if the five conditions will eventually be met is not what British Columbians want.
But the Clark government knows it has to be more nuanced than that. There is much more at play here than just a single pipeline.
A frosty feud between Clark and former Premier Alison Redford started when Clark first unveiled the five conditions. They’ve since come to some consensus and the relationship between B.C. and Alberta is back on relatively solid ground, with Alberta agreeing in principle to the conditions last Fall.
But it should be noted that although officials from both provinces have continued to work behind the scenes, Clark and Redford’s successor, Dave Hancock, have not met to discuss the issue.
There is clearly still a stark difference in public opinion on Enbridge in Alberta compared to B.C. Although it’s the same country on either side of the Rockies, on this issue the two provinces are in very different worlds.
Then there’s the need for B.C. to maintain a relatively good relationship with Ottawa. B.C. needs the Federal Government’s support on a variety of issues, including province's energy centrepiece: a potential economic windfall from exporting liquefied natural gas to Asia.
But there is a trump card in Premier Clark’s back pocket that could help her avoid ever having to take a firm yes or no stance on Enbridge and expose her government to the wrath of a public outcry on the issue. The most effective opposition to the project will likely be B.C.'s First Nations.
Although there are a handful of First Nations along the proposed pipeline route that have signed deals with Enbridge, the vast majority in B.C. have not.
In fact, the majority are not only opposed to Northern Gateway, they are vowing to fight it both on the land and in the courts.
This could prove to be the death knell for the project, given that the courts have upheld the need for meaningful consultation with First Nations on major projects that have an impact on their traditional lands.
Although the federal government and Enbridge are now making overtures to these communities, their efforts around the Northern Gateway project until recently have been viewed as a case study in how not to act. They've been characterized as too little too late, or even a pipe dream.
That's fitting, given it's how many non-First Nations British Columbians also view Enbridge’s efforts to promote the pipeline to the public at large.