The federal government has approved the Northern Gateway pipeline, with strict conditions, but it’s a debate that won’t be going away any time soon. CNS photo

Pipeline debate just heating up

  • June 25, 2014

OTTAWA - When the Conservative government approved the Northern Gateway pipeline June 17, it launched a debate likely to figure prominently in the 2015 election. 

The debate will involve environmental concerns, aboriginal rights and the health of Canada’s resource-based economy. 

The government decision marked the acceptance of the National Energy Board’s conditional approval of the pipeline that would bring bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to the British Columbia coast so it can be shipped to world markets. After a 10-year study and extensive consultations, the regulatory body imposed 209 conditions the Enbridge pipeline must meet. 

The New Democrats and the Liberals opposed the move, as do an array of aboriginal and environmental groups. Though Canada’s Catholic bishops have not commented on the recent decision, previous statements from some bishops have raised concerns about the oil sands’ development. 

Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) executive director Joe Gunn pointed out in 2009 then St. Paul Bishop Luc Bouchard had written “the present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified,” and that then Mackenzie-Fort Smith Bishop Murray Chatlain joined “the call for the suspension of rapid growth of the tar sands.” 

“Building the Northern Gateway pipeline — designed to expand exports of bitumen — runs counter to the moral calls of these leaders,” said Gunn. “Christians must examine our consciences, lifestyles and public policies so that we advocate for and live in a more benign energy-sourced future.” 

Gunn pointed out industry proposals call for a tripling in bitumen production by 2030. 

“This expansive scenario means that Canada will never be able to achieve our promised greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets,” he said. 

CPJ has also stood for aboriginal rights, as have the bishops and other Church leaders, in calling for a “New Covenant” with Canada’s aboriginal peoples, Gunn said. 

“The federal government decision to proceed with the pipeline must only happen when Canada fulfills its commitment to free, prior and informed consent with the First Nations who inhabit the pipeline route.” 

Ken Coates, University of Saskatchewan Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation and director of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development, said people tend to see the concerns of environmental groups and aboriginal groups as the same. While they may overlap, there is “no more consensus within the aboriginal community than non-aboriginal community” on the pipeline. 

If First Nations’ concerns are “brought onside and their environmental concerns have been addressed,” there is likely going to be “a greater comfort” with the project, said Coates. 

But some environmental groups oppose development altogether. 

“There are people who see the oil sands as being a talisman for everything wrong with our carbon-based society,” Coates said. They don’t want the pipeline or the oil sands because it’s part of the struggle against climate change. He noted these same individuals do not seem to focus on oil production in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Nigeria with the same vehemence. “It’s the price you pay for being an open, democratic society,” he said. 

“Not to put a burden on people with very good intentions, but those thinking of closing down the oil sands better have a model in mind on how Canada maintains its quality of life,” Coates said. 

Brian Dijkema, Cardus’ work and economics program director, said it is good the environment is front and centre. In Christian social teaching, “the Earth is something to be used for the development of mankind but not abused,” he said. 

Cardus, a Christian think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture, has also researched the role resource development, not only of the oil sands, but other resources such as potash, liquid natural gas, diamonds and coal, have played in the national economy. The oil sands do not only benefit Alberta, he said, but have helped rejuvenate parts of the dying manufacturing sectors in Ontario and Quebec through new development and investment in producing valves, pipe, steel tubes and other equipment. 

Though resource development can be “extremely detrimental,” Canada’s environment for this is “extremely tight and well-documented” with “publicly available measures for limiting that damage,” Dijkema said. 

“If we change the rules, it makes Canada a less attractive place to invest. When we make these laws we should abide by them.” 

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