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Is there an alternative to the Northern Gateway pipeline?

The Joint Review Panel’s decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal will reverberate in Canada’s resource policy far into the…

By Lucas Powers , in Terra Politik: Geopolitics of the Canadian Environment , on February 16, 2012 Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Joint Review Panel’s decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal will reverberate in Canada’s resource policy far into the future. The debate symbolizes a collision of competing paradigms of resource development, each vying for dominance in the collective Canadian conscious. But in the grandiosity of this national conversation, one question has been lost: if the proposal is denied, then what comes next in the oil sands saga?

There is no indication that oil sands production is going to slow. The federal government just announced a plan to have increased monitoring and regulation of soil and water quality in place by 2015 (though this project is industry-funded and was initiated by a perceived need to revamp the international image of the oil sands). Kinder Morgan is expected to present a plan to double the capacity of their Trans-Mountain pipeline, taking it to nearly 600,000 barrels per day by 2015. Similarly, Mr. Harper and his ministers have made little secret of their aspirations for exporting Alberta’s black gold to Asia. Quite simply, barring a coup by the NDP in Ottawa, the oil sands are going to be a part of Canada’s energy landscape. And, unfortunately, oil production necessitates pipelines.

There are good reasons for environmental opposition to the NGP: the pristine wilderness the pipeline would traverse; tanker traffic in the dubious waters near Kitimat; and the provocative idea that the NGP heralds our commitment to fossil fuel energy. It’s also important to consider a 2010 declaration by nearly 60 First Nations to uphold a ban on tanker traffic along BC’s northern coast. It’s interesting to note, however, Premier Clarke’s successes in partnering with the Haisla First Nation and several energy giants in a plan to build three liquid natural gas export refineries around Kitimat (begging the question, is tanker traffic really the issue for First Nations, or was it Enbridge’s flagrant disregard for including their interests in the early planning phases that spawned such fierce resistance?).  The LNG refineries also suggest that the people of BC, while direly opposed to pipelines, have taken surprisingly little issue with the controversial fracking process required to access the wealth of shale gas in northern British Columbia.

What, then, are the alternatives to the NGP? It is important to preface this discussion by saying that the Keystone XL project is far from dead- a post-election resurrection would not be surprising- and that could seriously shift focus elsewhere. But assuming it is not built, then the options are few: 1) increase rail capacity to ship bitumen to the Pacific by railcar, or 2) build a different pipeline elsewhere.

Both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific have put forth bids to provide a ‘railcar pipeline’ for Alberta crude, which would negate the risks of oil spills along a pipeline. It would be a dedicated system of tanker railcars that shuttle bitumen from the oil sands to coast. However, the infrastructure required to meet supply would be immense and would have considerable environmental impacts itself. Also, the railway alternative does not address the oil tanker problem. A port, such as the one at Kitimat, would need to be expanded, as it’s not logistically feasible to accommodate increased tanker traffic at the Port of Vancouver.

The second alternative, building a pipeline along another route, is not promising. All of the environmental arguments against the NGP would apply to any pipeline proposal from northern Alberta to the Pacific. But one wonders if the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t? It is not impossible to imagine a pipeline that runs north to the Arctic Ocean. Currently this would be too dangerous a route for super tankers to navigate the sea ice that still persists throughout most of the year, but with climate change it is estimated the Northwest Passage could be permanently open within a decade, making access to Canada’s northern shores far more reasonable. Other countries have already started making grand plans for the Northwest Passage, as evidenced by Russia’s proposal for a trans-Arctic canal that could see as much tanker traffic as the Suez and Panama canals. It’s also probable that a pipeline to the Arctic would not illicit as much opposition: i) fewer First Nations groups would be affected, and those that would be are not as financially prosperous as many of their BC counterparts; ii) it would be foolish to underestimate the “out of sight, out of mind” reality of an Arctic pipeline-

It’s also interesting that in the preamble to Mr. Harper’s trip to China, there are reports that the Chinese will be pressing for a stake in the Arctic sovereignty negotiations that will inevitably play out among the Arctic Council nations. It is possible that China’s true interests lie in acquiring as many strategic resources globally as possible while their purchasing power is so strong; but it’s compelling that China has chosen to exploit a growing diplomatic relationship with Canada in obtaining a seat at the Arctic table.

The current federal government is determined to export Canadian crude to Asia. That crude needs a conduit to the coast, whether it is pipelines or railcars. The NGP debate will prove only a  single battle in the war for influence in Canada’s resource policy.