Opposition continues to grow against Enbridge’s proposed 728-mile, $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline, which would pump 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen crude from Alberta’s oil sands to British Columbia’s coast, to be loaded on tankers for Asian export.
Last week saw the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel (JRP)—who will make recommendations this year about whether the project should be approved—arrive in the province’s highly populated Lower Mainland. The panel’s three federal commissioners have spent more than a year gathering testimony from thousands of British Columbians across the province, the vast majority opposed to the project.
“We have great concern about Northern Gateway and tankers coming through our traditional waters,” Frank Brown, of Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We have made our presentations; we have made our case. But we’re not very confident that our interests will be heard. If necessary, we will take both legal means and other means necessary to ensure we protect the traditional territories from which we come from the beginning of time.”
But with two federal omnibus bills passed in the last year—Bill C-45 and C-38—removing the NEB’s authority to make binding recommendations, reducing waterway and habitat protection, and streamlining the environmental assessment process for industrial projects, many Enbridge opponents worry that their voices will be ignored. As hearings opened on January 14 in Vancouver, at least 1,000 protesters converged outside, rallying against the risks of Enbridge’s proposal. First Nations and environmental speakers warned that a tanker accident or pipeline rupture would threaten the coastline, rivers and lands, and hurt those dependent on them.
In response the NEB closed the hearing room to the public, instead putting citizens in a separate location to watch via video until their registered turn to speak. Five activists snuck past police on January 15 and were arrested for assault by trespass, though charges were soon dropped.
“The indigenous people across whose sovereign, unceded territories this pipeline is supposed to cross have already said no, unequivocally,” arrestee Kim Heartty told ICTMN. “So the project should not be under consideration beyond that.”
Enbridge insists its project will minimize environmental risks and provide jobs. The company says it has learned the lessons from its disastrous 2010 Kalamazoo River pipeline spill in Michigan, when at least one million gallons of crude gushed into the water system, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. The company has also promised to take increased precautions around the export of bitumen by supertankers from Kitimat, B.C., vessels that would navigate among dozens of tightly spaced islands along a stormy section of coastline.
“Protecting people and the environment is our top priority, which is why we announced enhancements to make what was already a very safe project even safer,” said Janet Holder, an Enbridge Executive Vice President, in a media release. “We intend to demonstrate to British Columbians and to all Canadians through the examination of the facts and science upon which this project application is based that there is a path forward that provides for prosperity while protecting the environment.”
But with a provincial election in May, and the governing B.C. Liberal party trailing in popularity behind the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Northern Gateway has become a focus. The NDP are against it, while the Liberals express cautious support and emphasize the pipeline’s economic benefits.
“The Enbridge Northern Gateway is not in the best interests of British Columbia or Canada,” said Rob Fleming, the British Columbia NDP environment critic. “The concerns I have are the same as most British Columbians have. They see that the environmental risks are huge with this project – that’s why the north coast has been subject to a 40-year moratorium on supertankers carrying petroleum products; they see no reason why that should change.”
For the majority of First Nations in the province, the environmental risks are simply not negotiable. They hope others join what has been declared an unbroken wall blocking Enbridge’s plans.
“We know this isn’t sustainable,” Brown told ICTMN. “We have to look at alternative ways of doing things. Why should we let quarterly profit margins dictate the future of not only First Nations, but of humanity?”