It’s D-Day for Harper on Northern Gateway

George Hoberg
June 8, 2014

June 8 - Convergence 2014: Protecting Our Sacred Waters from Tarsands Oil - photo by Ben West

The next big thing in the battle over the Northern Gateway pipeline happens by June 17, when the Harper cabinet’s decision on the National Energy Board’s recommendation to approve the pipeline (with conditions) is due. What’s likely to happen next?

It’s useful to think about the Northern Gateway conflict as involving four stages. We’ve completed the first regulatory stage, where the project has been submitted and undergone regulatory review. We are now in the second stage, on the cusp of a decision by the elected officials with legislative authority over pipeline approval. When that’s done, there are two more stages: the legal stage, and the on-the-ground stage.

The Political Stage

In my view, the odds are still with Harper endorsing the NEB recommendation. He’s invested a great deal politically in getting oil sands access to Pacific markets, and to walk away from the project would be acknowledging a major defeat. But a yes decision is by no means a slam dunk, for several reasons. First, Harper needs to win the next federal election, and public opinion in BC is not favourable to pipeline approval, which puts the 21 Conservative seats at greater risk.

Second, we haven’t heard from Christy Clark and the government of British Columbia on its position on the pipeline in quite some time. If the Clark government remains opposed (its current formal position is that the project does not meet BC’s famous five conditions), it would be very costly politically for the Harper government to approve it.

Finally, there is no evidence that the adamant opposition of First Nations in BC has changed. From the beginning, First Nations opposition has always been the biggest threat to the project. If Enbridge or the government hasn’t been able to turn that around, approving the project will set back relations with First Nations even further, and jeopardize other resource projects important to the Harper government.

Harper’s Choices

Harper essentially has three choices. He can accept the NEB recommendations and conditions. He can reject them, which would kill the project for the time being (Enbridge would be able to propose the project again at a later date). Or he could pull an Obama, and simply put off making a decision about the pipeline.

The National Energy Board Act gives cabinet the authority to accept or reject the recommendation decision of the NEB but cabinet cannot alter the terms and conditions the NEB recommends. The cabinet can, however, ask the NEB to reconsider its terms and conditions, and give it a new deadline. It can actually do so repeatedly. So if Harper wants to simply buy more time, he can do so by asking the NEB to reconsider. (Updated: Or, as was pointed out by James Coleman at the Calgary Law School, he can just extend the deadline indefinitely under Section 54(3).)  Doing so would be a major about face for the Prime Minister who rammed a streamlining of the regulatory review process through Parliament in 2012, and who has been so critical of Obama for failing to bring finality to the Keystone XL decision. But in some ways it would be the most politically graceful move given the painful choices Harper confronts.

What Happens if Next if Harper Says Yes?

The Federal cabinet decision is the most important decision point in this political stage of the Northern Gateway conflict, but it is not the only one. BC’s Premier Clark would still need to weigh in. It would be very difficult for Clark to move to yes on Northern Gateway without a major shift by either Enbridge or the federal government on BC’s demand of a “fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits.” So one thing to look for as part of a yes decision by Harper is whether big new developments occur on sharing economic benefits with BC. Even if that condition gets satisfied, however, Clark will be risking a major political backlash, if she endorses the project, given the political strength of opposition to Northern Gateway in BC. If Clark takes a stand and says no, the pipeline can only proceed if Harper is willing to go to war with BC politically and constitutionally. Given the importance of BC’s 21 seats to the Conservative’s chances for success in the 2015 election, that seems unlikely.

If Harper and Clark both say yes, then look to two other major decision points. The Dogwood Initiative is poised to unleash a citizens initiative to ban tankers from the Pacific coast. While the process is stacked against initiatives, a strong showing of support in the campaign would send shock waves through the electoral process.

And then there’s the proponent, Enbridge. The company has the option of sitting on the license and continuing to work with First Nations to see if it can reduce opposition to the project. If the company chooses to proceed, then we move to the third, legal stage of the conflict.

The Legal Stage

There are already five legal challenges filed against the NEB decision to recommend approval, two by environmentalists, three by First Nations. More are anticipated if the Harper cabinet says yes. It will take a year or more to resolve these cases; this dispute seems destined for the Supreme Court of Canada. The courts could enjoin Enbridge from proceeding before the issues are resolved. If they don’t, Enbridge could still choose to take a pause until they are resolved.

But if Enbridge puts one shovel in the ground in BC to initiate pipeline construction, we’ll enter the fourth, on-the-ground stage of the conflict.

The Looming Civil Conflict

If legal approvals get put in place and Enbridge proceeds, there will be a grand battle on the ground between the company and pipeline opponents. I believe a decision to proceed with the pipeline will result in civil conflict beyond what Canada has experienced in modern times.  I was at yet another rally today in Vancouver against the pipeline where senior First Nations leaders stated that they would use every legal means to stop the pipeline, and if that failed, their people would take “matters into their own hands” to stop the pipeline. If it comes to this on-the-ground stage, the nightly news will be filled with RCMP dragging aboriginal elders off of roads, and continuous physical and legal confrontations between police and opponents. It will make the Clayoquot Sound conflict look like a tea party.

This conflict over a pipeline continues to manifest the struggle over the definition of Canada moving through the 21st century.

Posted in Energy Pipelines, Oil Sands | Leave a comment

The Site C Panel Report and the Crisis of Credibility for BC Electricity Policy

Courtesy of BC Hydro

George Hoberg
May 9, 2014

Yesterday, the Joint Review Panel for the Site C dam project on the Peace River in northern British Columbia released its environmental assessment report. The panel did not recommend for or against the project, but instead chose to highlight some significant benefits from the project but also that the government has not convincingly made the case that the project is needed in the time frame proposed. As a result, the B.C. government (and the feds) can still choose to proceed with the project but doing so legitimately, given the concerns of the panel, just got much harder.

The panel’s report is striking both in terms of the approach it took and what it implies for the politics and governance of BC electricity policy. In sharp contrast to the Northern Gateway pipeline Joint Review Panel, whose report read more like a rubber stamp of the proponent’s own arguments, the Site C panel took a hard look at BC Hydro’s case for the dam. It challenged a number of the proponent’s findings, and was especially critical of BC Hydro’s justification for the project costs and superiority to alternatives (most notably, conservation and geothermal energy). The summary finding is that “The Panel concludes that the Proponent has not fully demonstrated the need for the project on the timetable set forth” (p. 306). It even had the temerity to recommend that if the governments “are inclined to proceed, they may wish to consider” having the BC Utilities Commission review several aspects of the case for the project.

Does B.C. Electricity Policy Have a Crisis of Credibility?

It seems that every time a major component of B.C. electricity policy is exposed to formal, independent review, it runs into serious problems. The last time B.C. electricity policy got a formal independent review was the BC Utilities Commission review of the BC Hydro 2008 Long Term Acquisition Plan. The BCUC was strongly critical of BC Hydro’s rationale for its plan, and rejected it. The Campbell government responded by stripping the power from BCUC to review major plans and projects, and the Clark government has continued those exemptions. The Clark government has given BC Hydro a rough ride with internal government reviews as well.

The Site C panel report was the first formal independent review since the 2008 shift in governance, and it leaves BC Hydro in quite a pickle. The panel report undercuts the rationale for moving ahead with the major dam, and it is hard to see how the government can move forward with legitimacy without involving the BCUC, something it has already said it refuses to do. BC Energy Minister Bill Bennett quickly dismissed the notion that the government would involve BCUC.

The proposed dam poses a challenging dilemma. As the BC Hydro report makes clear, and the panel report strengthens, the project has concentrated local impacts on an area quite precious to local residents, including First Nations. Yet it would also create a new source of low carbon energy to feed growing demand in the province. It has the added benefit of being able to store electricity to balance intermittent clean energy sources like wind. As a result, it would help foster the transition to a clean energy economy in BC and neighboring jurisdictions.

The challenge is that for the government to proceed legitimately with such a high impact project, there should be, at a minimum, a strong justification for the project’s need. The Site C Joint Review Panel report makes that much harder for the government. And if it chooses not to pursue Site C, the cornerstone of the province’s strategy to meet future electricity needs, BC Hydro needs to go back to the drawing board on its Integrated Resource Plan.

Several Other Notes

As a climate hawk I was dismayed to see the panel, by accepting that LNG compression will be done by burning natural gas, buy into a scenario for future LNG that will quickly blow through BC’s legislative greenhouse gas limits (page 304).

I’m very pleased to see the panel take such a demanding approach to the government’s rationale for the project. That’s why we have environmental assessment requirements. But I was a quite surprised at panel’s conclusions on costs. “The Panel cannot conclude on the likely accuracy of Project cost estimates because it does not have the information, time, or resources. This affects all further calculations of unit costs, revenue requirements, and rates” (p. 280). It’s one thing for a panel to carefully scrutinize a proponent’s analysis and find it inadequate. It seems much less credible, and justified, to conclude a proponent’s analysis is not credible because the panel didn’t have the capacity to scrutinize it. The panel seems content to tell the government it really needs to get the help of BC Utilities Commission.

Finally, environmentalists are fond of pointing out how environmental assessment processes are mere rubber stamps and virtually no projects get rejected. Certainly the Northern Gateway experience feeds into that pattern. But with this Site C panel report, there are now some quite striking cases accumulating of EA panels being strongly critical of projects (see Prosperity Mine for example).

Posted in British Columbia Electricity | Leave a comment

Canada: The Overachieving Petro-State

George Hoberg

Neil Young during his Honour the Treaties Tour (CTV News)

January 20, 2014

Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties tour has poured gasoline on the already volatile Canadian energy politics.* There are many issues fueling the conflict, but the one I want to address in this blog is whether Canada is starting to act more like a “petro-state.” Thomas Homer-Dixon, writing about the Keystone XL pipeline in the New York Times, argued that “Canada is beginning to exhibit the economic and political characteristics of a petro-state.” Andrew Nikiforuk ramped up the indictment in a Foreign Policy piece entitled “Oh, Canada: How America’s friendly northern neighbor became a rogue, reckless petrostate.” Writing for Maclean’s, Andrew Leach countered that the role of the oil industry in the Canadian economy is not large enough to justify the label.

I agree with Leach that the data on the role of oil in the Canadian economy mean that Canada is in a completely different category from the countries typically referred to as petro-states.** The oil and gas sector make up about 6% of GDP in Canada. According the World Bank, oil rents in Canada make up 3.2% of GDP, ranking Canada 39th in oil dependence.

But I also believe that Canada, under the Harper government, has in fact begun to act more and more like a petro-state. Canada is not, as Leach suggests, a “failed petro-state;” it is an overachieving petro-state.

Evidence of Petro-state Behaviour

In my view, there are four powerful examples of Canadian petro-state behaviour.

  • The most significant example is Canada’s abysmal record on climate policy, and the apparent role of the oil lobby in contributing to the failure to take meaningful action. We used to have a good reputation for leadership in international climate negotiations; now it seems we’re a pariah. Canada has withdrawn from the Kyoto protocol and generally been a negative force in progress towards global agreement. Domestically, Canada has not addressed the growing GHG footprint of its oil sands and is on track to greatly exceed its 2020 targets. It has repeatedly delayed promised regulations for the oil and gas industry, and evidence has emerged that the government has explicitly done so at the request of oil industry lobbyists.
  • Canada has revamped its environmental law framework, at the request of oil industry lobbyists, to smooth the way for the approval of new energy infrastructure like oil sands pipelines.
  • Whether it’s the aggressive “won’t take no for an answer” lobbying of the U.S. on Keystone XL pipeline, or the attacks on the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive, much of our foreign policy seems to be about lobbying for the oil sands industry.
  • Another element of the petro-state idea if that the government gets blinded by oil wealth and doesn’t serve the public interest, or even its own economic interests – what Terry Lynn Karl refers to as “petromania.” There are indications of this syndrome in Canada as well. I believe if Canada were more strategic in implementing an effective framework for environmental governance of the oil sector, it could still have a vibrant energy industry and dramatically improve its environmental record and international image. The argument that Canada (or Alberta, in this case) was not acting strategically with respect to oil sands governance was made by none other than the late Alberta Premier, Peter Lougheed, as far back at 2006 (see also here).

Why is Canada acting more like a petro-state that its economic dependence on oil suggests it should?

The current structure of the Canadian political system gives the oil industry more clout than its share of GDP would suggest.

First, Canada has a very decentralized federation where energy resources are controlled, for the most part, by provincial governments. In Alberta, where the oil sands are, the economic role of the oil sector is much greater, so it comes closer to looking like a petro-state economically. The energy sector makes up 28% of Alberta’s GDP. Energy resource revenues as a percent of Alberta government revenues have ranged from 19% to 40% over the past 10 years, with an average of 29%. Because Canada is so decentralized, Canadian energy policy with respect to the oil sands is mostly Alberta energy policy, and the province’s economic dependence on oil comes closer to a petro-state than the overall Canadian figures would suggest.

Second, Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is from Alberta, and he’s a conservative with a strong ideological affinity with the oil industry. His political views are far to the right of the median voter in Canada, but our party system makes that possible and, in recent years, easy. There are multiple parties on the centre and left, so Harper’s party, which makes up the right end of the spectrum, can dominate federal politics with a parliamentary majority even though it received less than 40% of the popular vote.

As a result, the federal government under Stephen Harper has been highly responsive to the interests of the oil industry. Canada, whose economic structure should not promote petro-state behaviour, has a political structure that has produced an overachieving petro-state.

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* In the interests of disclosure, in addition to being a UBC Professor I also am involved in a small climate action group that has taken positions against oil sands pipelines through BC. I also have more Neil Young songs in my Itunes than any other artist, including the Tragically Hip. It is my personal view that Neil Young has probably written more great songs than any artist of my time. It is also my view that he has written some of the worst (e.g., Cripple Creek Ferry).

** The leading academic work on petro-states is Terry Lynn Karl, The Paradox of Plenty (1997). For a more recent treatment, see Michael Ross, The Oil Curse (2012).

Posted in Climate Action Policy, Oil Sands | 1 Comment

Explainer: What Happens After the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel Reports? (updated with new section on B.C. Government)

George Hoberg
December 17, 2013

After several years of political conflict and two years of public hearings, the Joint Review Panel for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Project is set to release its report December 19, 2013, at 1:30 PST. The panel will be making recommendations to the cabinet about two things: first, whether or not the pipeline proposal should receive a certificate (a permit), and what “terms and conditions” should be specified for the project. These are actually two separate recommendations that are treated different legally. Examples of terms and conditions could be the requirement for specific spill response plans, or greater research into diluted bitumen behaviour in marine waters. The JRP proposed a set of terms and conditions in April 2013.

From JRP to Cabinet

The JRP was constituted as a panel of the National Energy Board under the National Energy Board Act. When the JRP started its work it had final decision-making authority on approval. But one of the most important changes of the controversial Bill C-38, much of which was designed to facilitate the approval process for large energy infrastructure projects, was the removal the final decision-making authority from the NEB and giving it to cabinet.

The relationship between the JRP recommendation (in this case acting as the NEB) and the cabinet are described in the National Energy Board Act, sections 53 and 54. Essentially, cabinet may accept or reject the recommendation decision of the JRP but can’t alter the terms and conditions it recommends. Cabinet has three choices:

  1. Direct the JRP to approve the application with the terms and conditions recommended by the JRP
  2. Direct the JRP to reject the application
  3. Direct the JRP to reconsider its recommendation or its terms and conditions

Cabinet can ask the JRP to reconsider its terms and conditions, and can do so repeatedly, but it can’t alter them. Cabinet can give specific deadlines by which the JRP needs to reconsider. Cabinet has 180 days to respond.

These provisions create the potential for conflict between the JRP and the cabinet over the terms and conditions. This scenario could arise if the JRP recommends, and then refuses to reconsider, terms and conditions that are so demanding that they make it difficult or unfeasible for Enbridge to proceed. Paragraph 7 of Section 53 states:  “Regardless of what the Board sets out in the reconsideration report, the Board shall also set out in the report all the terms and conditions, that it considers necessary or desirable in the public interest, to which the certificate would be subject if the Governor in Council were to direct the Board to issue the certificate.” It seems unlikely, however, that the JRP would risk an open confrontation with cabinet.

There are five scenarios for how the relationship between the JRP recommendation and cabinet action can be resolved. The percentage numbers given in brackets are my own personal speculation about probabilities of different outcomes.

  1. The JRP recommends approving the application, and cabinet concurs (60%)
  2. The JRP recommends approving the application, and the cabinet orders it to reconsider or reject it (5%)
  3. The JRP recommends rejecting the application, and cabinet concurs (20%)
  4. The JRP recommends rejecting the application, and cabinet orders it to reconsider (10%)
  5. The JRP recommends rejecting the application, and cabinet orders them to approve it anyway (5%). It could either do this by accepting the terms and conditions recommended by the JRP in its December 19 report, or order the JRP to reconsider its terms and conditions.

Options for the B.C. Government

The Government of British Columbia has specified five conditions for the province to support the pipeline. The last formal statement we have from the province on the Northern Gateway Pipeline is it final written submission to the JRP, where it took quite a strong position against the pipeline as proposed. The BC government will have to decide whether the terms and condition proposed by the JRP lead it to change its position. Note that the JRP will not be able to address the province’s fifth condition about getting a “fair share” of economic benefits – that would have to come from subsequent actions by Enbridge or perhaps the federal government.

If Premier Christy Clark chooses to dig in her heels and oppose the pipeline even if recommended by the JRP, her power will be mostly political, not legal. Legally, interprovincial pipelines are quite clearly a matter of federal jurisdiction. In the time of greatest conflict between the BC and Alberta governments about the pipelines, Clark did threaten to deny power from BC Hydro and deny forest permits. But given the formidable legal powers of the federal government in this situation, her leverage is political. B.C.’s most important resource is that Harper’s Tories need B.C. seats to form a government after the 2015 election. 21 B.C. ridings held by Tories, and a minimum of six of them are likely to be marginal ridings for the Tories in 2015.

So the real question is, if Clark determines that after the JRP report her five conditions are not met, and she chooses to dig in her heals and oppose the pipeline, will Harper be willing to provoke a political war with the province of BC? Albertans have long memories about what it’s like when a federal government imposes big energy policy decisions against the express wishes of the province. That might weigh on Harper’s mind, but he’s been awfully committed to getting oil sands greater access to tidewater.

After the Cabinet Decision

If the cabinet rejects the pipeline proposal, it is dead, and Enbridge’s only option is to go back to the beginning of the process.

If the cabinet approves the pipeline, the Enbridge will have the green light from the regulatory process to proceed. It might decide, however, that the terms and conditions are too demanding to justify commencing construction, or Enbridge might choose to postpone construction for political reasons.

If Enbridge chooses to proceed (and possibly even if they don’t), the cabinet decision is virtually certain to be challenged in court by First Nations and environmentalists. It is also conceivable that the Government of British Columbia could launch a legal challenge. When this process began, I said that the biggest obstacle to the construction of the Northern Gateway Pipeline is the adamant opposition of so many First Nations, and that remains the case. The government is required to demonstrate that they have consulted and accommodated the concerns of First Nations. It is plausible that the courts could decide that despite the equity offers by Enbridge and the safety assurances of the company and governments, that the concerns about the risk to First Nations values have not been appropriately accommodated. It could take several additional years for the case to be resolved in court.

If the government’s decision to approve the pipeline application is upheld by the courts, then construction can commence. When it does, it is virtually certain that a widespread campaign of civil disobedience will ensue by a coalition of First Nation and environmentalists

Stay tuned.

Posted in Energy Pipelines | Leave a comment

Why I’m Opposed to the Northern Gateway Pipeline

George Hoberg
November 11, 2013

This Saturday, November 16, I will be joining hundreds of others from the Vancouver area at Science World for the No Enbridge Pipeline rally at 2 PM. It is part of a Canada-wide day of action, Defend our Climate, Defend our Communities. I’m excited that, given the importance of proposals to increase carbon exports to BC’s reputation as a leader on climate action, the Vancouver event is focusing on the Northern Gateway Pipeline.  It’s a critical time: the regulatory review panel charged with recommending whether the pipeline should proceed is required to report by the end of December 2013.

I strongly encourage you to join us, to ensure that our political leaders understand the breadth and depth of opposition to this proposal within British Columbia. Last winter, I appeared before the regulatory review panel to explain why I’m opposed to this pipeline. I’ve reposted my statement below.

Oral Statement to Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel, Vancouver, BC February 1, 2013

Good afternoon. My name is George Hoberg, and I’m here to add my voice to so many other British Columbians who have spoken to you in opposition to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal.

I’m a professor in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC. I have a PhD in political science from MIT, and I’ve been on the faculty at UBC for 25 years. My research specialization is environmental and natural resource policy and governance. I teach courses in sustainable energy policy and governance. Parts of my remarks today are from the perspective of a scholar, but I will also be speaking as a teacher and now activist, and finally as a father.

I do want to sincerely thank you for your attention today. I am gratified that you are engaged in such a rigorous process of gathering the facts about the project and listening to the values and perspectives of so many British Columbians. I’m quite sad about the set-up of these hearings; that you felt the need to separate the speakers and panel from the audience. But if it has any benefit, I hope that it allows you to better focus and absorb what you are hearing with an open mind.

As a scholar, one of the things I study is aboriginal resource governance. I know the test for sufficient accommodation, last clearly articulated in the Supreme Court’s 2004 Taku case, is vague. But my reading of the jurisprudence leads me to the conclusion that with such widespread and adamant opposition by First Nations, approving this pipeline proposal would not meet an appropriate test for accommodation. The proponent has offered First Nations substantial economic benefits, and assured them that best practices will be used to minimize the risks of pipeline and tanker spills. First Nations’ opposition west of Prince George remains adamant. In this circumstance, it is hard to see how approving the pipeline can be consistent with accommodating First Nations concerns.

As a scholar I also study environmental policies and procedures including environmental assessment. I strongly believe that the decision, in the terms of reference, to exclude consideration of upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions is terribly misguided. The climate impacts of the proposal are not the only environmental risk posed by the pipeline but they are certainly one deserving careful consideration in your process. One needs only to look at the US environmental assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline to see that it is normal and accepted good practice to include upstream and downstream greenhouse gas impacts during regulatory review of oil sands pipeline proposals.

Pipeline or tanker accidents would be a disaster for our rivers and coast. But what worries me more is that even if the oil arrives safely at its destination, it will still contribute significantly to the environmental disaster of dangerous global warming. It is vital to keep in mind what the pipeline is carrying: carbon. The carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from the bitumen carried through the Northern Gateway pipeline will amount to 83 million tonnes per year.  Shockingly, that’s one-quarter more than the 67 million tonnes the entire province of BC emits in a year.

Climate scientists are telling us that we face a planetary emergency. If we stay on our current fossil fuel energy path, there’s a virtual certainty of catastrophic climate change. Our models also tell us it’s not too late to change course, to avoid the worst effects. But it’s getting very late. According to the International Energy Agency, we only have 5 years to begin a fundamental transformation of our energy system.

The urgency communicated by the IEA, an arm of the OECD, has recently been amplified by both the World Bank and the head of the IMF. We’re not talking about Greenpeace here – these are the pillars of the global establishment that are sounding urgent alarms. The problem is these organizations don’t set global climate policy. In fact, no one sets global climate policy

If climate science teaches us that we face a crisis, my scholarship as a political scientist teaches that global warming is an extraordinary political challenge. The complexity and magnitude of the issue seem to overwhelm us, and we find ourselves in a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons”, where each individual – in this case political jurisdictions like provinces and nations – acting in their own self-interest produce an outcome that is disastrous for their collective interests.

Because of these political challenges, policy has demonstrably failed to act in the interests of humanity. In this context, what is the right way to think about large new fossil fuel projects? What I do is perform a thought experiment: if we had in place a policy regime designed to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets necessary to meet the consensus 2 degree target, would this project make sense? That would involve putting in place a price of carbon that was several hundred dollars a ton. In that context, it’s hard to imagine massive new oil sands infrastructure would be justified. Studies from MIT support this conclusion.

Up to now I’ve been speaking as a scholar, but I want to shift now. As a teacher, I found it increasingly challenging to explain these scientific and political realities to students and not come to the realization that I need to do more than research and teach. How could I continue to stand in front of several hundred young adults each year, the generation that will suffer the consequences of climate change, and not become more active politically myself? It is our generation of leadership – it is me, and it you – that has the power to make the changes to put us on a more sustainable path. If we don’t act now, it will be too late for them.

They are my students. They are our children.

In 2011, along with other faculty and students at UBC, I co-founded a group called UBCC350. We are a group of UBC students, faculty, and staff committed to advocating for meaningful government climate action. We strongly support aggressive global and national action to address the climate crisis, but our immediate focus is on carbon exports from British Columbia. BC has enacted some progressive climate policies, but they have yet to be fully implemented. Recent proposals for projects that would massively increase BC’s carbon exports threaten to overwhelm BC’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.

I know that all the members of UBCC350 are vehemently opposed to this pipeline. We will continue to work hard, going door to door, ensuring people know about the climate implications of the pipeline, and encourage them to act politically with their children in mind.

Finally, I want to speak to you as a father. I have two children, ages 16 and 18. By the time they graduate from university, we’ll be beyond the window of opportunity the IEA gives for the fundamental restructuring of the energy system.

The tragic fact is that if we are guided by short term economic thinking, humanity will simply not be capable of rising to the challenge of taking the concerted action sufficient to avoid dangerous global warming. That’s the inevitable conclusion of my scholarship.

My conclusion as a father, and as a citizen of British Columbia, Canada, and this extraordinary planet, is that we need to act now because it is the right thing to do. Surely the first human duty is to protect our children from harm.

I’m very concerned about the risks of pipeline and tanker spills, and the need to respect the rights and aspirations of the First Nations on whose traditional territories we have settled. But my greatest concern with this proposal is its contribution to the climate crisis. We need to act swifty and dramatically to change the trajectory of our energy system. If we want to maintain a safe climate for our children and future generations, that’s what the science tells us we need to do. Approving massive new oil sands infrastructure is simply not consistent with that imperative.

I urge you to find that Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal is not in the national interest.

Thank you for your attention today.

Posted in Climate Action Policy, Energy Pipelines, Oil Sands | 1 Comment

Government of BC to Enbridge: “Trust me” is Not Good Enough

George Hoberg
May 31, 2013

Today the Government of BC submitted its final written argument to the Joint Review Panel reviewing Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline project to ship oil sands to the Pacific coast at the port of Kitimat in Northern British Columbia. Despite the victory just two weeks ago of a pro-business, pre-resource development party in the BC election, Premier Christy Clark’s government gave a resounded “no” to the project.

You can read the full document here.

Virtually all of the substantial criticism in the 166 paragraph legal submission is about BC concerns with the lack of detailed information about Enbridge plans for pipeline and tanker spills. The most important statement is the document is in paragraph 5:

Paragraph 6 contains the bottom line position: “Given the absence of credible assurance in this regard, the Province cannot support the approval of, or a positive recommendation from the JRP regarding, this project as it was presented to the JRP.”

The core issue really is how much information Enbridge needs to present at this stage about spill preparation. BC summarizes its own view in this paragraph:

Another vital paragraph is the summary position on pipeline risks:

BC essentially repeats the same message in its tanker risk summary:

The final two of BC’s five conditions  got surprisingly little attention. There is only one paragraph on First Nations, emphasizing only that the JRP needs to address First Nations concerns but taking no position:

The question of whether BC will get its “fair share” of benefits, the province’s fifth condition, is not addressed in much detail. The province simply points to some of the shortcomings of Enbridge’s cost-benefit analysis, raising some of the questions brought to the debate by Robyn Allen.

This response by the province is about as strong as one could imagine in the circumstances. But it is very important to keep this statement in context. It is submission to a federal regulatory process, and the JRP merely makes a recommendation to the federal cabinet – Stephen Harper has the final say. Nonetheless, it is very damaging politically to Enbridge’s case for pipeline approval.

Pipeline advocates got a shot of optimism after the NDP was defeated in the election, but this stern rejection from the Clark government is a major blow. It makes it harder for the JRP to recommend approval, and it makes it harder for the Harper government to endorse the pipeline because it would be so toxic to federal-provincial relations.

The prospects for oil sands access to the Asian markets through Kitimat just got a lot dimmer.

Posted in Energy Pipelines, Oil Sands | 2 Comments

What Issues Mattered in the 2013 British Columbia Election? Some Context on the Kinder Morgan Surprise

George Hoberg
May 18, 2013

Everyone’s still trying to make sense of the stunning comeback upset by the BC Liberals. Much attention has been focused on differential turnout and the unwillingness of the NDP to “go negative” in response to the relentless attacks by the Clark campaign. I want to put a word in for issues, because one general pattern in elections is that parties who are favoured on the issues of greatest importance to voters have a strong advantage. An analysis of issue salience and public attitudes towards parties on issues also helps shed light on the impact of the Kinder Morgan surprise that seems to have been an important moment in the campaign.

Ipsos-Reid published the results of a poll of 1400 BC voters on election day. Here’s a table of the list of issues ranked by the percentage of election day poll respondents who said the issue was “very important” in the respondent’s “vote decision.” The table also show how voters who ranked the issue that way voted for the two leading parties, with the final column showing the Liberal advantage over the NDP on that issue.

It is a bit surprising that on three of the five top issues – open and honest government, health care, and trust in the leader or party – the NDP had an advantage. It’s also surprising that Dix ended up with a trust advantage despite the BC Liberals’ relentless attacks on his character and judgment. The problem for the NDP, however, is that the Liberals’ advantage on the economy (ranked second) and the government spending (ranked 5th) were far larger than the NDP advantage on their top 3 issues. Liberals won those concerned about the BC economy by 23 points and those concerned about government spending by 20.

The survey did specifically list “pipeline expansion projects” as an issue in the survey – it was ranked 11th as an issue with 39% of voters saying it was important In their choice. Remarkably, the Liberals had a modest advantage on that issue. Those who listed pipelines as an important issue in their vote seem to have favoured Clark’s “five conditions” policy to Dix’s opposition.

You have to go pretty far down the list to find environment – it is ranked 14th with 36% of voters saying it was important in their voting decision. The NDP had a huge 25 point advantage with those voters.

In my view the issue table provides further support for the argument that Dix’s Kinder Morgan surprise hurt the NDP in the election. While no doubt gaining him some support for those concerned about the environment, it alienated a far larger voting bloc concerned about the economy.

It doesn’t seem like this result was inevitable. If Dix had successfully framed the decision differently – for example by focusing more on “saving our coast” or “standing up for the BC environment” it might have been less disadvantageous. But the Clark campaign was far more effective at winning the framing battle on the issue. One core insight from those who study framing in election is that you want to ensure voters are focused on the issues on which you have an advantage. The Kinder Morgan surprise turned out to be an unexpected gift to the BC Liberal campaign.

Issue Very important Voted for
Liberals NDP Lib – NDP
Open honest gov 71 37 47 -10
The BC Economy 65 56 32 +23
Health care 60 37 49 -12
Trust in leader/party 58 40 45 -5
Gov spending 56 53 33 +20
Leadership 56 48 39 +9
Job creation 44 51 38 +13
Provincial debt 44 56 32 +24
Education 42 32 53 -21
Desire for change 40 7 76 -69
Pipelines 39 45 42 +3
Taxes/HST 38 36 48 -12
Social issues 37 25 59 -34
Environment 36 29 54 -25
Crimes/justice 33 45 48 -3
Candidate in riding 33 42 42 0
LNG 30 54 33 +21
TV Debate 9 55 32 +23
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British Columbia Election 2013: A Big Loss for the Environmental Movement

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We Can’t Afford Massive New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure: Oral Statement to Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel

George Hoberg

Oral Statement to Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel, Vancouver, BC February 1, 2013

Good afternoon. My name is George Hoberg, and I’m here to add my voice to so many other British Columbians who have spoken to you in opposition to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal.

I’m a professor in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC. I have a PhD in political science from MIT, and I’ve been on the faculty at UBC for 25 years. My research specialization is environmental and natural resource policy and governance. I teach courses in sustainable energy policy and governance. Parts of my remarks today are from the perspective of a scholar, but I will also be speaking as a teacher and now activist, and finally as a father.

I do want to sincerely thank you for your attention today. I am gratified that you are engaged in such a rigorous process of gathering the facts about the project and listening to the values and perspectives of so many British Columbians. I’m quite sad about the set-up of these hearings; that you felt the need to separate the speakers and panel from the audience. But if it has any benefit, I hope that it allows you to better focus and absorb what you are hearing with an open mind.

As a scholar, one of the things I study is aboriginal resource governance. I know the test for sufficient accommodation, last clearly articulated in the Supreme Court’s 2004 Taku case, is vague. But my reading of the jurisprudence leads me to the conclusion that with such widespread and adamant opposition by First Nations, approving this pipeline proposal would not meet an appropriate test for accommodation. The proponent has offered First Nations substantial economic benefits, and assured them that best practices will be used to minimize the risks of pipeline and tanker spills. First Nations’ opposition west of Prince George remains adamant. In this circumstance, it is hard to see how approving the pipeline can be consistent with accommodating First Nations concerns.

As a scholar I also study environmental policies and procedures including environmental assessment. I strongly believe that the decision, in the terms of reference, to exclude consideration of upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions is terribly misguided. The climate impacts of the proposal are not the only environmental risk posed by the pipeline but they are certainly one deserving careful consideration in your process. One needs only to look at the US environmental assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline to see that it is normal and accepted good practice to include upstream and downstream greenhouse gas impacts during regulatory review of oil sands pipeline proposals.

Pipeline or tanker accidents would be a disaster for our rivers and coast. But what worries me more is that even if the oil arrives safely at its destination, it will still contribute significantly to the environmental disaster of dangerous global warming. It is vital to keep in mind what the pipeline is carrying: carbon. The carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from the bitumen carried through the Northern Gateway pipeline will amount to 83 million tonnes per year.  Shockingly, that’s one-quarter more than the 67 million tonnes the entire province of BC emits in a year.

Climate scientists are telling us that we face a planetary emergency. If we stay on our current fossil fuel energy path, there’s a virtual certainty of catastrophic climate change. Our models also tell us it’s not too late to change course, to avoid the worst effects. But it’s getting very late. According to the International Energy Agency, we only have 5 years to begin a fundamental transformation of our energy system.

The urgency communicated by the IEA, an arm of the OECD, has recently been amplified by both the World Bank and the head of the IMF. We’re not talking about Greenpeace here – these are the pillars of the global establishment that are sounding urgent alarms. The problem is these organizations don’t set global climate policy. In fact, no one sets global climate policy

If climate science teaches us that we face a crisis, my scholarship as a political scientist teaches that global warming is an extraordinary political challenge. The complexity and magnitude of the issue seem to overwhelm us, and we find ourselves in a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons”, where each individual – in this case political jurisdictions like provinces and nations – acting in their own self-interest produce an outcome that is disastrous for their collective interests.

Because of these political challenges, policy has demonstrably failed to act in the interests of humanity. In this context, what is the right way to think about large new fossil fuel projects? What I do it perform a thought experiment: if we had in place a policy regime designed to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets necessary to meet the consensus 2 degree target, would this project make sense? That would involve putting in place a price of carbon that was several hundred dollars a ton. In that context, it’s hard to imagine massive new oil sands infrastructure would be justified. Studies from MIT support this conclusion.

Up to now I’ve been speaking as a scholar, but I want to shift now. As a teacher, I found it increasingly challenging to explain these scientific and political realities to students and not come to the realization that I need to do more than research and teach. How could I continue to stand in front of several hundred young adults each year, the generation that will suffer the consequences of climate change, and not become more active politically myself? It is our generation of leadership – it is me, and it you – that has the power to make the changes to put us on a more sustainable path. If we don’t act now, it will be too late for them.

They are my students. They are our children.

In 2011, along with other faculty and students at UBC, I co-founded a group called UBCC350. We are a group of UBC students, faculty, and staff committed to advocating for meaningful government climate action. We strongly support aggressive global and national action to address the climate crisis, but our immediate focus is on carbon exports from British Columbia. BC has enacted some progressive climate policies, but they have yet to be fully implemented. Recent proposals for projects that would massively increase BC’s carbon exports threaten to overwhelm BC’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.

I know that all the members of UBCC350 are vehemently opposed to this pipeline. We will continue to work hard, going door to door, ensuring people know about the climate implications of the pipeline, and encourage them to act politically with their children in mind.

Finally, I want to speak to you as a father. I have two children, ages 16 and 18. By the time they graduate from university, we’ll be beyond the window of opportunity the IEA gives for the fundamental restructuring of the energy system.

The tragic fact is that if we are guided by short term economic thinking, humanity will simply not be capable of rising to the challenge of taking the concerted action sufficient to avoid dangerous global warming. That’s the inevitable conclusion of my scholarship.

My conclusion as a father, and as a citizen of British Columbia, Canada, and this extraordinary planet, is that we need to act now because it is the right thing to do. Surely the first human duty is to protect our children from harm.

I’m very concerned about the risks of pipeline and tanker spills, and the need to respect the rights and aspirations of the First Nations on whose traditional territories we have settled. But my greatest concern with this proposal is its contribution to the climate crisis. We need to act swifty and dramatically to change the trajectory of our energy system. If we want to maintain a safe climate for our children and future generations, that’s what the science tells us we need to do. Approving massive new oil sands infrastructure is simply not consistent with that imperative.

I urge you to find that Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal is not in the national interest.

Thank you for your attention today.

Posted in Climate Action Policy, Energy Pipelines, Oil Sands | 2 Comments

Why 2012 was the Year of the Pipeline: Reflections on an Extraordinary Controversy

George Hoberg
December 31, 2012

The Northern Gateway Pipeline controversy has been remarkable in its intensity, duration, and scope.  It has received an enormous amount of mainstream media attention, beginning with Joe Oliver’s January open letter castigating pipeline opponents as foreign-funded radicals, and continuing through the year. From October 2011 through September 2012, the words “northern gateway pipeline” appeared in 191 stories in the Globe and Mail and 433 in the Vancouver Sun.

The controversy has infected Canadian national, provincial and interprovincial politics, the most extreme example being BC Premier Christy Clark’s refusal to participate in talks about a national energy strategy because of her disagreements with Alberta’s Premier Redford about sharing the financial benefits of the pipeline. It has penetrated deeply into social media and cultural politics. A remarkable number of young people have added “NoEnbridge” as their middle name on Facebook, and even Rick Mercer had contributed with his comedy skit about Enbridge diversifying into piñatas.

There are five categories of reasons why the Northern Gateway Pipeline has been so controversial.

1. Inherently divisive problem structure

The structure of the policy problem has contributed directly to extent of conflict in two ways. First, the distribution of risks and benefits from the project is seriously skewed. The oil sands sector centered in Alberta will receive the overwhelming majority of benefits, whereas the environmental risks of pipeline and tanker accidents are borne predominately by British Columbia. Second, the mega-project is essentially a dichotomous choice. Competing interests can’t bargain over whether to do a little bit of it or a lot. The either/or nature of the choice accentuates the magnitude of consequences and contributes to the sense of immense stakes on both sides.

The fact that this inherently divisive problem structure is overlain by Canada’s particular institutional arrangements and history makes it even more divisive. The federal government – now the cabinet – makes the decision on the project, creating the appearance of distant, centralized power imposing a decision against the interests and will of a opposing province. This situation will certainly sound familiar to Albertans, to whom Pierre Trudeau’s 1980 National Energy Program remains a call to partisan and regional arms.

2. Unstable and divisive political structure

The pipeline controversy is also affected by the peculiar political moment in which Canada finds itself. Core parts of the relevant political structure are unstable because of the disjuncture between the values of the party in power and the public mood. At the federal level, the party with a commanding majority in Parliament received less than 40% of the vote in the last election, and that support comes from the right side of the political spectrum. As a result, the median voter in Canada is well to the left of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. Stephen Harper’s victory was enabled by the division among multiple parties on the center-left. If Center-left parties could address this problem before the 2015 election, the majority party could shift fundamentally. Alberta, now dominant in federal politics, could quickly find itself isolated by a Parliamentary majority forged through BC, Ontario and Quebec. (Admittedly, there are no signs at present that this center-left cooperation is likely to occur.)

The political structure of British Columbia is also quite unstable. The currently BC Liberal majority party has become deeply unpopular and seems virtually destined to be defeated by the leftist New Democratic Party that is strongly opposed the pipeline. NDP leader Adrian Dix filed a very strong criticism of the project with the Joint Review Panel, and he’s announced that if he becomes premier the province will reassert its jurisdiction over the environmental assessment of the proposed pipeline.

In terms of interprovincial political structures, there are deep value differences between British Columbian and Albertans. These differences are revealed not just in voting behaviour, but also in responses to questions about value tradeoffs between energy and economic development on the one hand and environmental protection on the other. The center of political gravity in British Columbia is further left and much greener than in Alberta.

In addition to this unstable and divisive national, provincial, and interprovincial political structure, the pipeline proposal has also met with exceptionally formidable organized opposition by environmentalists and First Nations. Environmentalists have brilliantly seized on the issue as a way to mobilize sympathetic British Columbians, especially on the issue of tanker risks, and turned a relatively unaware and indifferent public into strong opponents. The latest poll shows opposition has increased to 60%.

First Nations in BC have also been strongly opposed, and their legal position gives them considerable power. The fact that much of the pipeline’s proposed path (and the tanker routes until open water in the Pacific Ocean) in BC goes through the traditional territories of First Nations greatly complicates the rules for consultation and accommodation.

3. A series of unfortunate events

If the structure of the problem and politics were not enough to create an intense controversy, a series of unfortunate events for pipelines and oil companies added fuel to the fire. The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was a major political setback for oil megaprojects. The risk of pipeline accidents was accentuated when a significant spill occurred in Northern Alberta in April 2011.

But the most damaging event was the major rupture of an Enbridge oil sands pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The July 2012 statements by US regulators about the company’s abysmal response to the accident transformed the politics of the Northern Gateway project. The formal National Transportation Safety Board report denounced the company for “pervasive organizational failures.” When the NTSB chair made a public statement on the report’s finding, her choice of language was devastating to Enbridge’s reputational standing: “When we were examining Enbridge’s poor handling to their response to this rupture you can’t help but think of the Keystone Kops.”

The Keystone Kops reference produced a fundamental shift in elite opinion and political positioning — suddenly support for Enbridge was politically toxic. Op-ed writers and columnists declared  the pipeline dead. BC’s leading political columnist claimed the “pipeline looks dead and buried,” and another leading columnist announced that the NTSB report “sounds death knell for pipeline.” BC Premier Christy Clark shifted from her “wait and see” position to forcefully advocating five preconditions to the provinces support, including “a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits of a proposed heavy oil project that reflects the level, degree and nature of the risk borne by the province, the environment and taxpayers.” Federal Conservative politicians, including Prime Minster Harper and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, seem to have muted their advocacy of the project.

4. Strategic blunders by pipeline proponents

While probably less important than the previous three categories of reasons, pipeline proponents have not played their hand as effectively as they might have. Enbridge’s efforts to consult northern communities, especially First Nations, have been roundly criticized as inadequate. But the highest profile blunder was by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. On the eve of the opening of the Northern Gateway Pipeline hearings, Oliver issued his now infamous open letter to Canadians, demonizing environmental opponents to the project as “radical groups” receiving “funding from foreign special interest groups” who “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.” While Harper must have believed the move would be politically beneficial, it seems to have backfired significantly by pushing many moderates who were offended by the style of attacks into strong opponents of the pipeline.

5. National Identity Dissonance

While it’s far more speculative, I also believe there is something larger at stake here: a deep divide over what kind of country Canada is. (I’ve hyperbolically titled talks about these ideas “how did an oil pipeline become a battle for the soul of our nation?”) Harper has communicated a strong vision that Canada’s future wealth is tied to commodity development and export, especially oil sands. While the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan and much of their public seem enthusiastic about that vision, many in the rest of Canada are strongly alienated from it. You can see this is the concerns (even if ill-advised) about “Dutch disease” in Ontario, and in the strongly environmentally oriented provinces of Quebec and British Columbia. The counter vision to Harper’s “Carbon Canada” has yet to be articulated, but it feels nascent in much of the criticism and antipathy to the Harper government’s “responsible resource development” agenda.

Will 2013 be any different?

The remarkable controversy over the Northern Gateway pipeline has been fueled by a continental divide in interests and values, by events that have damaged the reputation of Enbridge, by strategic blunders of pipeline proponents, and by a deep divide in what kind of future we want for Canada. What’s likely to happen in 2013 and will it dampen the intensity of the controversy?

I expect that the pipeline will remain as controversial and perhaps become even more so in the upcoming year. The problem structure won’t change, unless the federal government or Enbridge finds a way to deliver much greater financial benefit to British Columbia. The political structure at the federal level won’t change absent an unexpected political crisis. BC is likely to have a new government, which should significantly increase tensions between BC and Alberta, and between BC and the Harper government. Environmental opposition isn’t going anywhere. First Nations opposition west of Prince George has shown no signs of cracking, and the #idlenomore movement is providing a new voice to long simmering indigenous grievances about living conditions as well as land and resource rights. Perhaps there won’t be any new big pipeline accidents, and maybe pipeline proponents will have learned from past mistakes and become more political deft.

The issue could quickly recede if Enbridge withdraws its proposal, but it has shown no inclination to do so, just the opposite in fact. Joint Review Panel hearings will wrap up in the next several months, and that may dissipate media interest in the story. But the panel is required to report by the end of the year and that is bound to reignite the controversy.

Canada has a resource-dependent political economy but a political culture that has not been comfortable abandoning its aspirations for leadership in environmental sustainability. We are a developed democracy but have unusual party and federal systems that foster both partisan and intergovernmental conflict. We take pride in our international reputation for supporting human rights but have not appropriately reconciled with the original inhabitants of the land. It’s no surprise that a pipeline megaproject – taking carbon-intensive oil, across unceded aboriginal territory of spectacular wilderness and waterways, to markets in China — is proving to be a divisive, nation-defining controversy.

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