Despite Government Approval, Can Canadians Stop The Northern Gateway Pipeline?

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This week, the Canadian government approved the 731-mile Northern Gateway pipeline, as long as Enbridge, the company looking to build the pipeline, can meet 209 conditions laid out by a Canadian review panel in December.

But government approval doesn’t mean those opposed to the pipeline, which if built will carry tar sands oil from Alberta’s Athabasca region to Kitimat, British Columbia, are backing down. Nikki Skuce, Senior Energy Campaigner at ForestEthics, told ThinkProgress earlier this week that regardless of government approval, Northern Gateway will “never be built” — a mantra that’s been adopted by Northern gateway opposition, a group which includes environmental organizations, more than 130 First Nations groups and 67 percent of British Columbians who either want the pipeline delayed for further review or blocked altogether.

First Nations, in particular, have ramped up their opposition in the months leading up to the government’s decision on Northern Gateway and in the days following. The native groups that signed on to the Save the Fraser declaration, which aims to ban all tar sands pipelines from First Nations territory and from the ocean migration routes of the Fraser River salmon, say the Canadian government has failed to adequately consult with them, conversations that are stipulated in Canada’s constitution.

Instead, the groups say, the government has shifted the consultation responsibility to Enbridge. The NEB’s conditions include a requirement that Northern Gateway (meaning Northern Gateway Pipelines Limited Partnership, or Enbridge and its partners) — not the federal government — provide the review board a summary of consultations with First Nations groups. According to Enbridge, agreements have been secured from 60 percent of the First Nations groups along the pipeline’s route — a claim a group representing First Nations rejects — but more consultations are needed with those still opposed to the project.

Those opposed groups, however, have pledged that they’ll form a wall against the pipeline, promising lawsuits and, if needed, direct action to keep the pipeline from being built. Already, there are five lawsuits in the works against the National Energy Board’s December reccommendation that Northern Gateway be approved with the 209 conditions.

“Our coastline is not for sale to big oil, no matter how much money is on the table. There are thousands of British Columbians and Canadians who feel the same way, and who will stand with us to stop this dangerous project,” the Heiltsuk First Nation said in a release.

Mayors of several northern British Columbia towns don’t have plans to ramp up activism now that the government has made its decision on Northern Gateway, but say their towns — even some that typically welcome industry development — remain opposed to the project.

“There’s something different about [Gateway],” Smithers, B.C. Mayor Taylor Bachrach said. “People just feel the risks are too great and they are something our region isn’t willing to compromise on.”

But will this opposition make a difference in Northern Gateway’s future — could it ultimately, as groups claim, keep the pipeline from ever being built? University of British Columbia business school professor Werner Antweiler said the lawsuits already in the works — and the possible future lawsuits from First Nations groups — will create additional hurdles for Northern Gateway. The pipeline also must contend with the five conditions laid out by British Columbia Premier Christy Clark in 2012.

So far, B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak says Enbridge has only met one of the conditions, meaning the company still has to show that it’s developed a top-of-the-line marine oil spill response plan, show that it’s using the best practices in oil spill prevention, address First Nations legal requirements, and ensure B.C. receives a a fair share of Northern Gateway’s economic benefits.

“Our position remains unchanged: it is no,” Polak said of Northern Gateway this week.

How strictly B.C.’s capitol requires Enbridge to stick to these conditions will depend, Antweiler said, on how strong the opposition is in the province.

And Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in regional innovation at the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, said in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail that First Nations “hold they key” to Northern Gateway’s future.

“It is difficult to imagine the pipeline proceeding in the face of strong and angry First Nations opposition,” he writes “The political and logistical challenges…would be formidable and the political fallout so substantial that it could easily prove to be destabilizing on a national scale.”

First Nations have stood their ground on energy projects before in Canada. In October, a peaceful First Nations protest against a shale gas project in New Brunswick turned violent when Canadian police tried to break up the protesters, who were blocking a road. The First Nations Idle No More movement has organized protests and calls to action on several key Canadian issues, most of which have centered around environmental health.