Energy Ink

Northern Gateway promises to be a grueling race

January 12, 2012

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Supporters and detractors of Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline started public hearings this week in Kitimaat Village with all the gusto of novice marathon runners. Watch for the earnest sprint to fade into a wheezy jog as proceedings move east along the proposed 1,172-kilometer pipeline route before wrapping up in final hearings this fall.

That the Pacific-bound mega-project has polarized Canadians is no surprise. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s sharply worded open letter, released as it was on the eve of the opening gunshot, upped what were already considered high stakes in a regulatory showdown pitting environmentalists and First Nations groups against industry biggies and their sympathizers in Ottawa.

One is tempted to question Oliver’s judgment. Recall that this is the same minister who told Peter O’Neil at Postmedia that he wasn’t “into conspiracy theories,” only to then lash out at environmental groups and their “billionaire socialist” backers. It could be that in his desire to see the Gateway application handled “as expeditiously as possible,” the former Bay Streeter has exposed the Enbridge-backed project to the same political winds that toppled TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL expansion to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

No matter. Gateway is a nation-builder. And yet one wonders, too, about Ottawa’s eagerness to finish this race. True, the controversial pipeline would cement a break from a half-century reliance on the U.S. market at a time when that country is struggling to bounce back from the financial mess left by the 2008 credit collapse – this despite the fact that California and Washington were identified as export markets in the original project application. Back when there was still a hope that Keystone would be approved before the Mayan apocalypse, Gateway was seen as a complementary project; it is now billed as a necessity. Still, telling your fellow competitors at the outset of a marathon that you would really like to grab a taxi to the finish probably isn’t the best way to win them over, not when there are serious issues at play.

Canada’s auditor general has warned, for instance, that the country is ill-prepared to respond to ship-source chemical spills. A December 2011 report submitted to the House of Commons has also noted that Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) could do more to ensure identified deficiencies in the facilities it regulates are in fact improved upon. The NEB has “conducted limited analyses to determine whether its risk-based approach is resulting in the right type, number, or frequency of compliance verification activities to ensure that the Board is meeting a minimum level of regulatory oversight,” according to the auditor general’s Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, which you can read here.

None of this suggests Gateway is inherently more risky than any other pipeline (indeed, of the 71,000 kilometers of regulated pipe in Canada, a case can be made that greater attention should be paid to the 22,600-plus kilometers of steel ribbon that is between 30 and 50 years old). “All of the features that are being talked about on this pipeline have been done commonly around the world,” Ray Doering, manager of engineering for Gateway, told me more than two years ago. “Absolutely there’s information that needs to be gathered and lots of design considerations. What’s different is the total scope of the project. But there’s no one design feature or element that we haven’t seen before.”

Will the engineer’s sober assessment ameliorate concern that Gateway is reckless by design? In the wide world of Twitter, it probably won’t. But it’s the sort of opinion that might, just might, lead to a steadier pace as Enbridge begins what promises to be a grueling race.

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