Rough Waters Ahead: Terra Informa and the Northern Gateway Pipeline | By Alan Shapiro

The Northern Gateway pipeline has become a familiar name for many Canadians. The project has emerged as the arena for a raging war between government, industry, environmentalists, First Nations, and the public. Yet for many Albertans and British Columbians, it is much more than a topic for debate, as its outcome will bear important ramifications for the livelihoods of hundreds of communities and thousands of citizens. The proposed Enbridge pipeline would span over 1200 kilometers, transporting 550,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen west from Bruderheim, just north of Edmonton, to Kitimat on the west coast of British Columbia. From Kitimat, oil would be shipped by tanker to Pacific markets. Response to the project has been truly mixed. A poll by Insight West estimates popular support at 75% in Alberta and opposition at 61% in BC – a notable difference in public opinion between the two provinces.

Proponents present three major arguments in favour of the development– access to foreign markets, oil sands growth, job creation and economic investment in the two provinces.  Currently, 99% of oil sands exports are to the United States. Alberta is dependent on the US both to buy and refine its crude oil. The recent growth in the exploitation of shale oil resources in the US, coupled with a decline in demand, has forced prices down to the point that Alberta receives roughly $40 less per barrel for its oil than the global standard. Whether for export or domestic processing, the lack of capacity to transport bitumen out of the province poses an imminent limitation to continued oil sands growth. The Northern Gateway pipeline offers a solution to these issues, creating a conduit for the export of oil to markets where demand is higher.

Opponents cite risks as being spills both on land and at sea, environmental and cultural threats, increased industrial development, and doubts about tangible long-term economic benefits for impacted communities. Many northern BC communities lying on or near the pipeline route would be adversely affected in the event of even a small oil spill. Along its expanse, it would cross more than 700 rivers and waterways, many of which are vital to the food supply and livelihoods of towns and Aboriginal communities. Environmental emergencies aside, such a large industrial development may fundamentally redefine the established traditions of the land and communities along its extent. Finally, many environmentalists disagree in principle with the idea of an outlet for oil sands product. Given the growing recognition of climate change and the carbon-intensive nature of heavy oil, the Northern Gateway pipeline would only spur environmentally unsustainable industrial growth.

 Salmon Habitat Sign near Rio Tinto Alcan and the possible terminus of the Northern gateway Pipeline (Photo by Myles Curry)
Salmon Habitat Sign near Rio Tinto Alcan and the possible terminus of the Northern gateway Pipeline (Photo by Myles Curry)

Terra Informa – a Canadian environmental radio network broadcasted in more than 50 communities across Canada – has played a key role in educating the public about the Northern Gateway project. In 2011, Terra Informa set out to trace the path of the pipeline and hear the stories of communities and stakeholders. Their documentary – Rough Waters and Divided Valleys: Voices from the Route of the Northern Gateway Pipeline (LINK) – has since been recognized by the National Campus and Community Radio Association. Terra Informa recognized that most of the coverage of the project had come from mass media sources, focussing on large-scale impacts and big players. Terra Informa chose to focus instead on those directly in the line of fire – communities, citizens, and Aboriginal groups along the pipeline’s proposed path – standing at once to gain and lose much from the development. Yet while mass media so often conveys only polarization, Terra Informa found that “a seemingly simple pipeline [was] creating turbulence in some communities, while building solidarity in others”.

Myles Curry, one of the writers and producers of the documentary, grants insight into the story behind the title. He describes a divided province – a myriad of opinions varying from town to town, group to group, person to person, and even within the mind of a single individual. Myles’ fitting description is of the province having “conflicting opinions all at the same time”. For some, it is a question of pros and cons. For instance, some question the security of food sources and traditional livelihoods versus new job opportunities. For others, it is a question of risk. How likely is a spill and what are the potential consequences? Yet for others, it is the deeper philosophical question of development versus preservation. Despite the apparent divisions on the surface, what stands out for Myles is the magnitude of community mobilization evident in the province. That is to say, while stakeholders may differ in their opinions about how to proceed, they are united in recognizing the importance of the issue.

The Northern Gateway project has served as an unprecedented catalyst for stakeholder involvement. Terra Informa has provided an outlet for some of these voices. The conclusions of the documentary are that actions cannot be based solely on top-down evaluations, but must stem directly from the voices of stakeholders. The collective wisdom of communities and Aboriginal groups offers a wealth of experience that often remains untapped. Local knowledge of the environment is invaluable not only to minimize potential ecological damage, but also to protect the value of the investment itself. A marine spill, for example, would not only endanger surrounding communities, but also compromise the reputation and bottom line of Enbridge and its industry partners. Terra Informa clearly demonstrates several major differences in perception among the players involved. One such notable discrepancy regards Douglas Channel, the proposed shipping route connecting Kitimat and the open ocean. While Enbridge sees it as no different from other existing tanker approaches, local fishermen characterize it as a rocky channel with “land mines all over the place”. The two pictures reflect two very different realities, which must be reconciled well before the development is finalized.

Since 2011, there has been little headway on the Enbridge proposal. An independent panel commissioned by the federal government and the National Energy Board is currently in the final stages of reviewing the project, with a final decision expected by the end of the year. The federal government and the National Energy Board have the final say on whether, when, and in what capacity the project will go ahead, as well as what conditions must be met. The BC government currently stands in opposition to the proposal. It has released five conditions that must be met in order to gain its support. These include federal approval, world-leading marine and land spill prevention and response programs, consultation with affected First Nations groups, and adequate economic benefits for the province. The provincial government’s current stance has made it much more difficult than ever for the project to go ahead. If indeed it does go forward, it may prove to be one of the most tightly regulated industrial developments of its size in Canada’s history – a reflection of the outspoken stance environmental activists, First Nations groups, and the public have taken on the issue.

To hear this insightful documentary yourself, visit:

Image Credit: Myles Curry of Terra Informa

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