Enbridge wears game face as Gateway hearings advance
The $6-billion pipeline is 'an irresistible target for environmentalists'
I have no idea if John Carruthers, president of Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway Pipelines division, plays poker. But if he doesn’t, he should.
Carruthers knows how to put on a game face. So, for that matter, do the company’s senior executives and consultants, and everybody else connected with the company who is being rigorously cross-examined at public hearings this fall in Alberta and British Columbia over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
As the initial round of cross-examinations in Edmonton in September demonstrated, the company’s defense of its proposed $6 billion project is rigorous and optimistic. This is not a company easily rattled by critics or reporters or a track record that includes the largest inland oil spill in United States history.
In his opening comments before the federal Joint Review Panel, Carruthers compared the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline to nation-building projects such as the Canadian Pacific Railway and the St. Lawrence Seaway, controversial issues in their own day. “Our project,” said Carruthers, “is no different.”
So, if you want to see how a company operates smoothly under intense pressure, I highly recommend you drop by one of the federal Joint Review Panel hearings (they will be held in Prince George during October-November and in Prince Rupert in November-December).
On the other hand, if you want to see how a company is starting to fray around the edges from the pressure, I recommend you go to the hearings but hang around outside in the hallway. There you might overhear officials muttering darkly about their chances of ever getting the pipeline built. “It’s not a slam dunk,” one
Enbridge official told me. “Far from it.”
The official, I should point out, wasn’t simply paying lip service to the professionalism and independence of the Joint Review Panel run by the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. He betrayed no knowing smile or sly wink that the fix is in for a project Prime Minister Stephen Harper has deemed “in the vital interest” of Canada. Despite the company’s game face, this official seemed sincerely worried the pipeline is in jeopardy even though Enbridge thinks it has an airtight proposal for the safest pipeline project in the world.
So, how could the panel possibly say “no”? “They could say yes but attach such onerous conditions that Enbridge would find it impossible to move ahead,” said my gloomy source.
Why would the panel do that if the proposal makes sense economically and environmentally? The paraphrased answer: The pipeline has become such a hot political potato that the panel will kill the project but do it in such a way that Enbridge is the one forced to pull the plug.
This is where Enbridge’s frayed nerves are starting to show, maybe even betraying a touch of paranoia. My cheerless source said the company is beginning to suspect the funding behind groups opposed to Northern Gateway is part of a Machiavellian plot in which environmentalists are being duped into helping U.S. energy interests.
Environmentalists might think they’re helping kill the oil sands but by preventing the construction of the pipeline all they’re doing is keeping oil sands bitumen away from China and ensuring the resource remains a strategic energy source strictly for the Americans: “If they were really serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they would be targeting coal-burning power plants, not the oil sands.”
Hmm. I imagine they would be doing just that if the Joint Review Panel happened to be holding public hearings on building $6 billion worth of coal-fired plants.
The fact is the Northern Gateway pipeline is proving to be an irresistible target for environmentalists – and one easy to hit given Enbridge’s “Keystone Kops” moment in environmental infamy with its huge pipeline spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 that is costing $800 million to clean up. In this poker game, Enbridge is playing the hand it dealt itself.
Even if the Joint Review panel approves Northern Gateway without onerous conditions, Enbridge still has to overcome the obstacle of British Columbia public opinion and the seeming intransigence of the province’s anti-pipeline New Democrats who will form government in May if public opinion polls prove prescient.
I ask my source how Enbridge will overcome that challenge and he shrugs as he glances towards the door leading to the hearings: “We’re taking it one step at a time.”