Energy Ink

Northern Gateway will test editors

January 10, 2012

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Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, raises an interesting question in the paper’s weekend edition from this past Sunday. He revisits five news themes from 2011 in need of “keen judgment” on the part of editors as 2012 unfolds. One of the them is shale gas. Brisbane sees a problem with the paper’s broader coverage of the resource, which the Times writes about onĀ its business, national and metro desks. Some articles focus on the resource’s economic potential. Others zero in on its environmental effects. “The coverage seems fragmented and at times contradictory,” he writes. “What’s the big picture?”

The same question should be asked in Canada about broader coverage of Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. Public hearings into the controversial export scheme start today in Kitimaat Village, home to the Haisla First Nation, a community that has made no secret of its opposition to bitumen exports. More even than TransCanada Corp.’s beleaguered Keystone XL pipeline, though, Gateway is fast emerging as a project with national import. This will undoubtedly please project proponents, who have long argued the Pacific-bound pipeline is on par with the great industrial projects of yore, but it should give editors pause.

The fact that Gateway has such broad appeal as a news story means that it will be covered by business writers and city desks, from national columnists right on up to Parliamentary bureaus. To take just one example, yesterday’s Globe and Mail gave us a story about how aboriginal title and rights will dictate the outcome of public hearings, another explaining Ottawa’s desire to accelerate project approvals and a third quoting environmental critics accusing Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (whose sharply worded open letter to Canadians you can read here) of undemocratic behavior. Globe columnist Michael Babad added to the chorus with a piece urging Oliver to specify precisely who he means when he says “radical groups” threaten to scupper the Gateway project. Today we are treated to a guest blog from a former federal deputy minister about maritime safety and a nifty photo feature that goes some way toward answering Babad’s request.

As with the coverage of shale gas in the Times, the reader is left confused. Is Gateway, a project designed to ship in excess of 500,000 barrels of diluted bitumen every day to a new marine terminal at Kitimat, primarily threatened by aboriginal opposition? Or is the pipeline debate a proxy for exposing the environmental movement’s habit of soliciting foreign donations? What of the ecological footprint left by oil sands extraction? How does that figure into the deliberations? Or the independence and efficacy of Canada’s National Energy Board? It’s not just the Globe. Are we to believe, as Paul Wells suggested yesterday at Maclean’s, that Oliver’s letter is an early sign that Stephen Harper’s big blue machine is at last making good on the Calgary native’s long-held promise to slash red tape, or is the public bellyaching about NGOs taking foreign money pure hypocrisy, as Wells’ colleague, Aaron Wherry, suggests today? Peter O’Neil and Trish Audette with Postmedia write that Gateway is primarily about “divergent political cultures” between Alberta and British Columbia even as their Edmonton Journal colleague, Dave Cooper, suggests the story is really about hard numbers.

To be sure, Gateway is a multi-faceted beast, one that easily blurs the lines, be they political, social, environmental, economic or geographical, that typically divide coverage in the daily media. Yet given that this is a story that will be with us for at least two years of regulatory wrangling (and likely beyond), editors should ask themselves hard questions about how the issues are portrayed in print, and seek to co-ordinate coverage internally where possible. Dean Baquet, managing editor for the Times, told Brisbane that the paper could do a better job covering shale gas, noting that an editor could be assigned to “make sure everybody knows what everybody else is doing.” The same tack should be followed with Gateway.

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