The Unlikely Pipeline

by Ray Grigg

The approval of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline by the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel (JRP) landed with a dismal and predictable thud. It is a view that needs to be reviewed, an assessment that needs to be reassessed, a decision that still needs multiple other decisions. “After weighing the evidence,” the JRP announced with an unconvincing finality, “we concluded that Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Northern Gateway Project than without it.”

The pronouncement is filled with ambiguities, uncertainties and deficiencies. What evidence was weighed that supported the JRP’s conclusion? Of 1,179 oral submissions, 1,159 were opposed to the pipeline and the resulting supertankers. As noted by Stephen Hume in The Vancouver Sun, “Scientists and environmentalists who wanted to address the hearings were excluded from the process by NEB fiat” (Dec. 20/13). The hearings did not consider “upstream” or “downstream” effects, except as economic factors — but even these were only conjectural or “likely”.

As for being beneficial to “Canada”, it is a land mass, a geographical territory endowed with natural features that don’t need scarring by pipelines, inevitable oil spills, threats to species and ecologies, wholesale removal of a non-renewable resource, massive environmental trauma from the tar sands development, not to mention additional greenhouse gases that are exacerbating climate change.

As for the benefit of the Northern Gateway pipeline to “Canadians”, this is both conjectural and questionable. The evolution of Canadians toward oil as their single, dominant, economic driver moves us toward the status of a petro-state with all the accompanying financial instabilities, budgetary uncertainties and democratic corrosion. Although the JRP finds that “the project, if constructed, would likely deliver economic benefits by expanding and diversifying the markets available for western Canadian crude oil exports”, it also acknowledges that it is “difficult to determine, with certainty, the effect the Northern Gateway Project may have on broader market prices once it is placed in service…”. In other words, the addition of Alberta dilbit to the international market may lower the price of oil, reduce Canadian royalties, and challenge the viability of the pipeline itself. Alternately, “new pipelines connecting producing regions with consuming regions change market dynamics in ways that cannot easily be predicted”, so “if constructed, the project would significantly expand and diversify the market options for western Canadian crude oil supply which would contribute to the realization of full market value pricing over the long term.” This translates to mean that Canadians could pay more for their own oil.

All these uncertainties are compounded in a country that has no coherent energy policy, is producing dilbit by furiously burning limited supplies of natural gas, is still importing “unethical” oil for its eastern needs, and is alienating itself from a global community becoming increasingly desperate to wrestle down carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, as the world’s climate situation continues to worsens during the next decades, the pressure to reduce oil production and consumption will only intensify. A global tax on carbon is almost inevitable, “dirty” oil from the tar sands will almost certainly be subject to increasing censure, and Canada could even be confronted with trade sanctions as it promotes a product that is deemed unacceptable by international judgment.

And this doesn’t even address another profoundly important environmental issue. The JRP acknowledges that no studies have been done to assess the impact of dilbit on river or marine ecologies. Nonetheless, in a leap of blind faith and an expression of amazing understatement — despite finding “there is some uncertainty regarding the behaviour of dilbit spilled in water — the Panel finds that the weight of evidence indicates that dilbit is no more likely to sink to the bottom than other heavier oils with similar physical and chemical properties.” So, uncertainty about the impact of dilbit on marine ecologies is dismissed by the Panel as inconsequential because it may not be worse than any other spill of “similar” crude.

To reassure everyone that all will be well if the Northern Gateway is built, the Panel recommends “a scientific advisory committee to study what happens to diluted bitumen when released into the environment.” Good idea. But this is essential information, required before the pipeline is approved, not after. Besides, the Panel’s adroit use of words focuses attention on the bitumen and not the environment — surely the issue is not “what happens to the diluted bitumen” but its impact on ecologies into which it is spilled.

But this evasive language is common in the JRP’s Report. Uncertain environmental impacts are disguised in verbal obscurity. Consider the following sentence. “The type and duration of effects would be highly variable and would depend on the type and volume of product spilled, location of the spill, exposure of living and non-living ecosystem components to the product spilled, and environmental conditions.” This is a wonderful example of linguistic nonsense. It simply admits, that given a spill of “product” — a much more benign term than diluted bitumen — neither the Panel nor anyone else knows what will happen. Nonetheless, despite the long-term damage to Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez disaster more than 20 years ago, the Panel is able to conclude from no substantial information or studies “that the adverse [environmental] effects would not be permanent and widespread.”

Approval of the Northern Gateway by the JRP is little more than a routine formality wrapped in a symbolic gesture. Recent legislation passed by the federal government has radically altered the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the National Energy Board Act, transferring decision-making power to the federal cabinet. Given its political, economic and environmental ideology, final approval of the Northern Gateway is inevitable. But a host of other obstructions lie between approval and completion. Building the actual pipeline is more unlikely than it seems.