Pressure Rising on Both Sides of Northern Gateway Oil Sands Pipeline: December 2011 Update

George Hoberg and Andrea Rivers
December 6, 2011 (last updated December 8, 2011)

[Due to rapidly developing events we've decided to keep this post a living document with frequent updates. Updates from original text will be in italics.]

Since US President Obama’s decision to put off a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline for 18 months, pressure has increased on other alternatives for expanding oil sands access to markets. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project has become the new focal point, especially given the opportunity it provides to diversify exports away from the uncertain US market.

We’ve been following developments in the Northern Gateway controversy closely and will continue to provide periodic updates here.

Decision Delay

On December 7th, it was announced that the Joint Review Panel decision on the project will be delayed until late 2013, a year later than previously expected.  Enbridge remains publicly supportive of the process despite possible delays to the pipeline’s in-service target if approved. The first phase of community hearings is slated to begin on January 10th 2012 in Kitimat where the panel will hear oral evidence from registered intervenors.

The Gitxsan Kerfuffle

Media attention on Northern Gateway reached a new crescendo over the past several days when Enbridge announced Friday afternoon that it had reached a deal with the Gitxsan First Nation to support the pipeline in exchange for an equity share in the project.

But within 48 hours of the announcement, it became apparent that there was significant opposition with the Gitxsan community about the deal. By Monday afternoon the uproar within the community resulted in a significant backlash against the decision within the community and a group of Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs are renouncing the deal and demanding the resignation of the individual who participated in the announcement.

On Saturday December 3 an Enbridge spokesman stated: “We’ve done a lot of research and we think we understand the governance structure of the Gitxsan quite well and we’re comfortable with the way this has proceeded. We’re convinced we’re speaking to the right people.” While the Gitxsan situation has yet to be clarified, the backlash against the announcement casts doubt on Enbridge’s handle on First Nations politics.

The situation remains uncertain. Members of the Gitxsan nation formed a blockade outside the Hazelton, BC treaty office in protest. On December 7, an court injunction was issued ordering protesters blockading the Gitxsan treaty office to leave the site.

The Strength and Breadth of First Nations Opposition

More important, even if it turns out the Gitxsan decision sticks, the much, much bigger story is the remarkably strong opposition from so many other First Nations in BC – along the pipeline route, along the Pacific coast, and downstream in the Fraser River watershed. A total of 130 First Nations have announced opposition. That includes approximately 70 that have signed the Save the Fraser Declaration banning new oil sands pipelines through their territories, and the Coastal First Nations who have issued a ban under their laws of oil sands tanker traffic along the BC inland coast. Here’s a map that shows the extensive territory covered by BC First Nations who have formally opposed the pipeline (some in the Northwest Territories have as well.)

Questions about Media Bias

Some have raised questions about the disparity in the limited media attention paid to the overwhelming First Nations opposition and the sensational treatment of the Gitxsan support announcement. This differential treatment is more likely due to the fact that First Nations opposition was well known in advance and the Gitxsan announcement appeared to be such big news because it is the first instance of a First Nation declaring support for the pipeline. The story on dissent within the Gitxsan community was also given the lead story in Monday’s print version of the Vancouver Sun. The media thrives on fresh news and conflict, and does not always excel in depth and perspective.

Should We Expect Other First Nations to Announce Support?

Those who have followed the Northern Gateway case have never expected First Nations opposition to be unanimous. There are First Nations east of Prince George that, because of the existing footprint of oil and gas on their land, may not have the same objections to this new pipeline. In an interview with Post Media’s Peter O’Neil, Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel “boldly predicted…that at least 30 of the 45 First Nations along the 1,170-kilometre pipeline route from Bruderheim, near Edmonton, to Kitimat on the B.C. coast, will have deals with Enbridge by next June.”

We can anticipate a numbers game of competing assertions of support vs opposition based on number of bands, kilometers of pipeline covered, and totals throughout the broader region. But the larger point remains that a very substantial number of the most directly affected First Nations are adamantly opposed.

Can First Nations Legally Block the Pipeline?

First Nations get their power within Canadian law from their constitutional rights as interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada. At present, Canadian law does not specifically require First Nations consent for resource development and authorization within their traditional territories. Current law requires that they be consulted meaningfully and that their interests be accommodated. The test for sufficient accommodation, however, is very uncertain. The key question is whether authorizing the construction of this pipeline can be consistent with accommodating the interests of so many First Nations who are so adamantly opposed.

Opposition by the Environmental Community

The opposition of First Nations is a formidable political force, but it is also important to understand that the environmental community in BC is also deeply opposed to the pipeline, and has allies across Canada and in the United States to help them. A coalition of environmental groups released a report arguing that the pipeline’s environmental risks outweighed its benefits. The authors of the report were from Canada’s Pembina Institute and Living Oceans Society, as well as the highly influential American group Natural Resources Defense Council. Also highly influential on the issue within BC are the Dogwood Initiative, ForestEthics, and West Coast Environmental Law.

It is uncertain how much this opposition by First Nations and environmental groups resonates with the general public. We were not able to find any publicly available polls specifically on the Northern Gateway pipeline. On the related issue of tanker traffic, public opposition appears to remain intense. An opinion poll commissioned by an environmental group shows 80% opposed to allowing oil tanker traffic in B.C.’s inside coastal waters.

The pipeline threatens to become an electoral issue within British Columbia. BC Premier Christy Clark has adopted a decided “wait and see” attitude towards the federal assessment of the pipeline. This stance is striking, given the enthusiastic support for the project by the previous premier and Clark’s aggressive jobs-through-resource-projects strategy.

Disjunction in Net Costs and Benefits between Alberta and BC

This opposition within BC poses a serious threat to the viability of the pipeline. No wonder Enbridge’s CEO Patrick Daniel is appealing to British Columbians to think from a broader perspective, from the “Canadian national good.” Daniel, along with the Prime Minister of Canada and Premier of Alberta, have stressed the importance diversifying the Canadian market for oil sands away from the American market that seems increasingly unreliable in the aftermath of the Keystone XL delay.

This theme was accentuated by federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. In an interview he stated: “We believe that we have to have access to Asian markets for our energy products, for our oil and gas. That is clearly in our national interest. We’ll survive without it, but not nearly in the same way…It’s nation-building, without exaggeration.”

The economic logic for diversification is powerful. But so is the environmental, cultural, and political logic of opposition to the pipeline from First Nations and many other British Columbians. The political problem is that the benefits of the pipeline will flow mostly to Alberta. The direct economic benefits to BC are relatively minimal, but BC is being asked to shoulder the bulk of the risk to rivers and coasts from potential oil spills. Opposition in BC appears both widespread and very intense.

Other recent developments: US Foundation Influence

A considerable amount of media attention remains focused on the issue of U.S. charities funding various pipeline opposition groups. The investigative research of  Vivian Krause has gained significant traction with mainstream media columnists, some suggesting environmental opposition is underlain by illicit commercial activity to ensure protection of American economic and trade interests. Much like Ezra Levant’s brainchild Ethical Oil was embraced by the oil industry and members of the federal government, support for Krause’s perspective has proliferated within Canada’s corporate and political elite. Enbridge’s CEO and Canada’s Prime Minister are the most recent high-profile vocalists. As they question the financial backing of opposition to the Northern Gateway project, Steven Harper vows to protect the “best interests” of Canadians. We’ve tried to put US foundation influence in perspective by highlighting the significant role played by foreign corporations in the oil sands in a previous blog and op-ed.

Other Resources

A detailed case document accurate up to May 2011 is here

Our previous September 2011 blog update of that case document.

This entry was posted in Energy Pipelines, Oil Sands. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Pressure Rising on Both Sides of Northern Gateway Oil Sands Pipeline: December 2011 Update

  1. OilSux says:

    LOL — you are comparing American ECONOMIC investment in the oil sands with the American POLITICAL and IDEOLOGICAL (secret) funding of Canadian treehugging activists and first nation shakedown groups?

    Apples to oranges, I say. This comparison surely is a blemish on this blog.

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