Proposed oil pipeline heats up jobs-versus-environment debate in B.C.

The folks behind the proposed oil pipeline known as the Northern Gateway project opened up the Guinness taps at the Dubh Linn Gate pub for a throng of Union of BC Municipalities delegates one night this week.

It was just one of the corporate receptions hosted in Whistler during the UBCM’s annual convention. This one was distinct because some delegates came not for Enbridge’s hospitality, but to protest the company’s plans to move Alberta oil across northern B.C. to ship across the Pacific Ocean.

The politically volatile proposal has local governments pitted against each other this week, the latest iteration of British Columbia’s jobs-versus-environment debate. But others are dancing on the fence, including the provincial leaders who are the target audience for this week’s show.

Leading the opposition to Enbridge is the community of Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Residents would see no jobs from the proposal, just oil tankers going by. The Village of Queen Charlotte hopes to stuff a cork in the pipeline with its proposed resolution to the UBCM calling for a ban on oil tanker traffic in its waters.

The resolution has no force; it would provide only political leverage. But village councillor Leslie Johnson hoped it would persuade the B.C. government to use its clout in Ottawa to ban oil-tanker traffic on the province’s north coast.

“It’s been proven in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico that it can’t be done safely. We don’t have to prove it again,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s important that there are parts of the world that are clear from that kind of risk and threat.”

There are communities along the pipeline route that stand to benefit, through new jobs and property taxes. Perhaps the British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf, or even Enbridge’s own troubles – one of its pipelines spilled 20,000 barrels of oil into a large Michigan river this summer – has made them shy.

“We are officially taking a position of neutrality,” said Kitimat Councillor Rob Goffinet, after conferring with the rest of his town’s delegation at the convention. They are awaiting the outcome of a federal regulatory review, expected in 2012. But municipal politicians go to the polls a year from now and won’t be able to dodge the question for much longer.

“There will be a time before the next election when we will be asked by the people of Kitimat to divide and say if we are for or against,” Mr. Goffinet said in an interview. “In the meantime we’ll listen to both sides.”

Enbridge expected to find an ally in Prince George Mayor Dan Rogers. But he was remarkably circumspect as well. “Council hasn’t taken a position one way or the other,” he said. “We know this project would have some impacts on us, there are some risks associated with it in terms of the environment, but we also understand as a resource community there are potential benefits.”

It fell to Gerry Furney, the plain-speaking mayor of the northern Vancouver Island community of Port McNeill, to stand up for the resource communities. Port McNeill grew out of a logging camp and remains a company town. It is surely the only municipality in the province with a tree stump featured in its flag.

Mr. Furney dismissed the waffling with contempt. “They’re all wimps,” he said. “Without industry we won’t have communities. If you don’t have industry you have a welfare situation and British Columbia is too proud for that. I believe Enbridge should be welcomed – they should be controlled carefully so they don’t screw up in any way.”

New Democratic Party Leader Carole James took a pass on Enbridge’s hospitality on Tuesday night. She was dining at an outdoor cafe just around the corner. She wasn’t avoiding it, she said later, noting that Enbridge bought a $3,500 table at her party fundraiser just last week.

er party has clearly denounced the proposal in the past, but Ms. James is in the middle of a campaign to portray her party as enthusiastic about development and wealth creation. In a speech on Thursday, Ms. James put economic development at the top of her to-do list.

Asked about the Enbridge proposal in an interview, she parsed her words carefully. “There are huge concerns, valid concerns,” she said. But that’s not to say the company shouldn’t have a chance to address them. “Whether it is mining or a pipeline, we need to address jobs in a sustainable way.”

Premier Gordon Campbell has also left his options open. He supports the proposal – but only if it can clear the hurdles of an environmental review. (It would help if Enbridge could find a way to win over the aboriginal communities which have vowed to stop the project.)

Energy Minister Bill Bennett – who, like Mr. Furney, eschews obfuscation – came closer to supporting the project than most dared.

Alberta oil needs to find a way to flow across B.C., he said. “So I think we should approach this from a perspective of finding a way to do it sensibly and responsibly, instead of just saying no.… There is a way to do it. This is a technical challenge.”

Pinning down his government or the NDP opposition on where they stand on the pipeline is challenging, too.

The numbers

Pushing an oil pipeline across Alberta and B.C.

The concept is to find new markets for Alberta’s oil sands. To avoid relying on a single customer, the United States, Enbridge proposes to push a pipeline across Alberta and B.C. – drilling through mountains – to reach the Pacific, and new customers.

It’s a major project that generates some big numbers:

$5.5-billion – total construction cost

2016 – targeted completion date, including two years for regulatory approval and four years to build

220 – number of oil tankers that would visit Kitimat, B.C. to load petroleum

1,172 km – length of pipeline

4,100 – person years of construction work in B.C.

560 – long-term jobs in B.C.

525,000 barrels – volume of oil that would move each day through the pipeline

20,000 barrels – volume of oil that spilled into the St. Clair River in Michigan in July when an Enbridge pipeline ruptured

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