Long, long road yet for Enbridge pipeline

Legal challenges on list of items facing Northern Gateway

At looong last, in late December, the Joint Review Panel (JRP) delivered its verdict on the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal. And it was approved, subject to a long list of conditions.

The three-member panel’s conclusion did not surprise me.

But before I explain why it didn’t, an aside. Given the blink-of-an-eye gap between the announcement  and the news releases of outrage from some of the usual suspects, the charitable side of me concluded, given the report is near 500 pages long and there are no fewer than 209 conditions, the outraged must have all taken speed reading courses.

The cynical side wondered whether reaction statements – either critical or lauditory depending on the verdict – just might have been written before the report even came down.

But back to why I am not surprised by the verdict. The over-riding mandate of the JRP was to decide whether Northern Gateway was in the national interest.

You didn’t have to be a clairvoyant to figure out the panel would decide it was.

It’s simple math: billions of dollars pouring into government coffers through various taxes over decades versus the potential impacts and costs of a spill.

The JRP decision readily acknowledges the potential damage from a major oil spill but says the probability of such a spill is at the lower end and therefore concludes the likely benefits outweigh what it sees as the less likely risks.

By now some readers will be apoplectic and be declaring that I am no more than a shill for Enbridge.

I hate to burst their outraged bubble, but I am actually no fan of Northern Gateway.

And the reason is a letter to the editor back in October of 2011 from Kitimatian Murray Minchin of the Douglas Channel Watch.

In it he said he had read Volume 7B of an Enbridge submission which said that in the event of a major 2,000 cubic metres spill at Hunter Creek at the head of the Kitimat watershed, “A closure on recreational fishing [on the Kitimat River] would probably be in place for some time, perhaps up to four years or more, to allow populations time to recover.”

And to my knowledge Enbridge has never contradicted that.

Being an avid fisherman whose favourite holiday destination for many years now has been the Kitimat River, there is no way I want to see that river’s fishery shut down for four years or more.

That position obviously reflects my own personal interest.

The same applies to the positions taken by many northwestern opponents of Northern Gateway.

But I repeat, the JRP was looking at the broader national interest. And much as I dislike the project, I would have a hard time coming up with a convincing argument that rejecting it would be in that national interest.

Of course the JRP decision doesn’t give Enbridge the green light – that call will be made by the federal cabinet sometime within 180 days of the release of the JRP decision.

Again it is not rocket science to figure out it will say ‘yes’ and again it will be making its decision based on its own national interest – as in what such a decision would mean to its electoral chances in the 2015 election.

But even if the Conservative government announces tomorrow morning that it has given approval to Northern Gateway, no shovels will hit the dirt any time soon.

That’s because you can bet your bottom dollar that any such announcement would trigger a raft of lawsuits and it would be nonsensical for Enbridge to start any construction with that sword hanging over its head.

And given the glacial speed at which such lawsuits grind through the judicial process, it will be years before the verdict will delivered.

There is also an interesting wrinkle in the JRP’s decision, specifically its inclusion of a “sunset clause.”

And that states “the certificate [to proceed] will expire on 31 December 2016, unless construction of the pipeline or the Kitimat Terminal has commenced by that date.” For reasons mentioned above, that is very unlikely.

So, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the JRP decision is not the end, it is not the beginning of the end, but it is at least the end of the beginning.

Retired as the editor of The Northern Sentinel in Kitimat, Malcolm Baxter lives in Terrace, B.C.