Much at stake in northern pipeline debate

It’s perhaps too early to make a judgment call on Enron’s Northern Gateway Pipelines proposal.

It’s perhaps too early to make a judgment call on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipelines proposal.

Last week, public hearings got underway in Kitimat. Already, some 4,300 have signed up to speak and predictably there’s a deep divide between those who support the project based on jobs and economic prospects and those against it based on the threat to ecosystems and the potential environmental catastrophe from an oil spill.

Then there are those who are torn between the two issues. They understand both sides but they’re still not comfortable about where they’d put their X if they had to vote on it today.

The Northern Gateway Pipelines is a $5.5 billion proposal by Canadian oil and gas company, Enbridge, to build a pipeline system 1,177 kilometres long from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat on the west coast. Each day, up to 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen will flow west to the port city while, along a parallel pipeline, 193,000 barrels of condensate will flow back to Alberta to dilute the next batch of oil.

 

The condensate is a toxic mix of liquid hydrocarbons, a by-product from the extraction of natural gas, and it will be used as a thinning agent to dilute and help transport the heavy bitumen oil. Most of the pipeline will be buried underground with the exception of some waterways where it’s thought to be safer running the pipes above the flowing water.

 

This is the largest proposed infrastructure project in B.C. history and the central question boils down to whether the benefits outway the risks, or vice versa. Needless to say, Prime Minister Harper is all over this project, considering it a no-brainer that it should go ahead, while Premier Christy Clark hasn’t taken a public position yet. Perhaps that’s a good idea.

There are huge issues to be addressed beyond the environmental one including native land claims and jurisdictions as well as the impact on local communities along the pipeline route.  Then there’s the what-if factor of spills, leaks, and the mother of all pollution issues.

Many folks are apprehensive and there’s a collective comfort zone as to the acceptance level of risk. The oil industry’s track record of spills and leaks from the inevitability of pipeline corrosion, stress factors, and cracking isn’t helping.

The development of the Alberta oil sands has been perceived as a pariah on the environmental horizon for decades. It is scorned as dirty oil and its landscape portrayed as barren and bleak as the moon. But in reality, those propaganda images by environment groups don’t really show the other end of the story when the sand is replaced minus the oil, the landscape is re-contoured and the surface is re-soiled and re-vegetated in world-class reclamation projects.

According to Alberta Environment, the total active footprint as of December 31st 2010 for all land clearing, mining and reclamation was 71,497 hectares. In the past five years alone, almost 1,200 hectares have been permanently reclaimed.

In Kitimat, a terminal infrastructure will be constructed to handle the flow of oil and the movement of supertankers. According to Enron, in the past 25 years, 1,500 ships have travelled in and out of Kitimat, negotiating the long passage of the Douglas Channel where the water is deep and the walls are straight, making them good radar targets. A new radar and navigation system will be available for everyone’s benefit and state-of-the-art tugboats will escort the tankers for the slow10-hour journey to the terminal.

It’s no wonder people are torn between support and rejection. The hearings are scheduled to last until the summer 2013. Thousands of jobs, billions of dollars, and an ancient landscape and culture hang in the balance.