Despite widespread public and First Nations opposition, and in clear contradiction of their election promises and repeated public statements on the issue, three major Canadian political leaders are working quietly to allow Enbridge’s dangerous mega-polluting Northern Gateway pipeline to move forward.
While in opposition, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau denounced the Harper government’s contingent approval of the pipeline in 2014, and promised that if he became prime minister, Northern Gateway would not happen. During last year’s federal election campaign, he promised to impose a ban on oil tanker traffic in northern British Columbia, a proposal which would effectively killed the pipeline.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley also campaigned on opposition to Northern Gateway in last year’s provincial election. One year ago today, in the midst of a contentious campaign, she told the Calgary Herald that “Gateway is not the right decision…I don’t think there’s any point to [pushing for the project’s completion]. I think that the legal and the environmental implications are such that it’s not going to go ahead. I think most people know that.”
And British Columbia Premier Christy Clark has openly opposed Northern Gateway for many years. After the federal government announced its approval of the project in 2014, Clark’s government declared that it would deny necessary provincial permits until its extremely strenuous demands (which some pro-pipeline observers called impossible) were met. Those demands – Clark’s famous “five conditions” – were a key plank in her party’s platform during their surprise victory in the 2013 provincial election.
Given this seemingly unanimous opposition from the three leaders, and the impending expiry of Enbridge’s permit to being construction, many analysts had assumed that Northern Gateway was dead, and pipeline proponents have focussed most of their energy and effort on the still-under-review TransMountain and Energy East pipelines.
But surprising developments in recent weeks have overturned this consensus, and suddenly, Northern Gateway’s demise looks far from certain.
Two weeks ago, the National Post’s John Ivison reported that Justin Trudeau had been convinced that he needs to make the construction of tar sands pipelines one of his government’s top priorities. Ivison’s sources for many of his assertions are shrouded in anonymity – “people with knowledge of the matter”, “government sources”, and “Liberals” – but one name is prominently featured: Canada’s answer to Mitt Romney, Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
It was apparently Morneau who convinced Trudeau that, as Ivison puts it, “pipelines have to be built to achieve the ambitious economic growth targets his government has set” and that “Canada’s future prosperity requires securing a world price for its crude.” Morneau, by far the wealthiest member of cabinet, left a decades-long career on Bay Street to run for the Liberals in last year’s election, and his high-level advocacy for pipeline construction is very much in line with the stated desires of Canada’s financial elite.
The big banks would love to see one or more $10-billion-plus pipelines built in the near future, as much for their own bottom lines as any other reason. In particular, Scotiabank’s CEO, Brian Porter, has been outspoken on the issue, publicly urging the government to move forward with Energy East, a project from which his bank stand to profit.
Ivison’s article focussed on Enbridge’s Energy East and Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain, the two pipeline mega-projects currently before the NEB for review. But an article published today in Bloomberg suggests that cabinet-level efforts are being made to move forward with Northern Gateway as well:
Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline may get a new lease on life as the Canadian government wavers on a planned tanker moratorium that was previously thought to spell the end for the project…
“It’s a formalized moratorium and, when we have worked out exactly what that means, we’ll let you know,” Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who is responsible for implementing the measure, said in an interview this month. Asked in a separate interview whether the moratorium pledge means Gateway is dead, he said: “It’s premature to say anything.”
Several federal government officials declined this month to say Northern Gateway is dead, or whether the moratorium will amount to a ban on tanker traffic altogether.
The Liberal Party’s platform straightforwardly promised to “formalize the moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s North Coast, including the Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound, to ensure that ecologically sensitive areas and local economies are protected from the potentially devastating impacts of a spill.” Garneau’s suggestion that this is something that needs to be worked out is disingenuous and suggestive of an imminent flip-flop on this issue.
Bloomberg also highlights Premier Notley’s shifting stance on this issue, reporting that she “changed her skeptical stand on Northern Gateway after seeing progress on some of the project’s hurdles and speaking to people involved who are “optimistic” about the pipeline’s chances, said the premier’s spokeswoman Cheryl Oates.”
It would be interesting to know exactly who these people who are “involved” in Northern Gateway and are “optimistic” about its chances are, and whether they include any employees or lobbyists for Enbridge or affiliated pipeline construction companies.
Noteworthy in the reporting on Notley’s “change of heart” is a complete absence of any discussion of the legal implications she raised as a candidate last year. If anything, her concerns about legally improper consultation of First Nations ought to have intensified in the interim, given a landmark B.C. Supreme Court ruling in January which ruled that the province of British Columbia had improperly abdicated its duty to consult and that the NEB lacked the authority to conduct these consultations.
No mention of this ruling is made by Notley’s advisors, nor is it noted by the Calgary Herald, which contrasts Notley’s concern for Indigenous rights from last year with promotional quotations from Enbridge’s PR rep about the value the company places on building “relationships and partnerships” with “aboriginal equity partners”.
Instead, the reporting focusses on the feasibility of Northern Gateway, the only one of the three major pipeline proposals to receive approval so far. Notley has of course been outspoken in her desire to see a pipeline constructed to bring Alberta’s tar sands resources to “tidewater”, but her reversal on Northern Gateway will still comes as a surprise to many Alberta voters, many of whom perceived the Alberta NDP as a party seeking a middle ground on pipelines and the environment.
Premier Clark’s reversal on Gateway, like Notley’s, is far from a fait accompli at this point, but if recent press reports are any indication, she seems to be increasingly willing to reverse her previously tough stand on her “Five Conditions” if Alberta is willing to buy some of the surplus electricity that B.C. will be generating with its catastrophically destructive and unnecessary Site C dam.
The press has been covering inter-provincial talks on a pipeline-for-“clean”-power deal for a few months now, but it’s only been in the last few days that the prospect of Northern Gateway has entered into the discussion.
Site C has become a major political liability for Christy Clark, with opposition politicians, First Nations, and members of the public denouncing her administration’s construction of the unneeded mega-project on unceded Indigenous territory. The Premier would love to be able to point to a guaranteed revenue stream from the dam going into next year’s provincial elections; while this will do nothing to placate most of the opposition to the dam, it could potentially redeem the project in the eyes of undecided swing voters.
As for her cast-in-stone “Five Conditions”, she’d be hard-pressed to explain how any of them had been met on Northern Gateway. But she’s already trying to negotiate herself downwards. Earlier this month, she essentially told reporters that she would be satisfied that her condition of “world-leading response, prevention and recovery systems” for marine oil spills could be met through increased Coast Guard funding from the federal government. (That funding was cut drastically under the Harper government, and could easily be cut again by Trudeau’s successor.)
When all these threads are woven together, a picture begins to emerge of an influential oil and gas industry with powerful friends in high places making a last-ditch effort to secure the construction of a long-desired and massively unpopular pipeline. In the pursuit of this effort, they are pushing political leaders to reverse long-standing positions and hedge on unequivocal campaign promises.
The good news for pipeline opponents is that Enbridge doesn’t have much time on its hands. According to Bloomberg, it must file shipping agreements “by the end of June”, and if it doesn’t being construction by year’s end its permit will expire. At this point, anything which slows down the process could prove fatal to Enbridge’s chances of success, leaving Northern Gateway vulnerable to even the slightest delays. Activists would do well to recognize this vulnerability and use it for maximum advantage.
In the meanwhile, any remaining illusions about the Trudeau government having a “balanced” approach to pipelines ought to be cast aside. This is an administration which has gone in a matter of months from insisting that it can’t prejudge pipelines, to taking cabinet-level action to secure their construction, to going back on clearly stated campaign promises which would impede pipeline construction. The masks are coming off, and the Trudeau Liberals are turning out to differ from the Harper Conservatives mostly in tone.