Late last week the federal panel reviewing the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project released 199 conditions that would have to be met if the project were to be approved.
The conditions don’t count as a recommendation that the pipeline be built. It will be a while before the joint review panel comes up with a decision on that point.
One of the conditions calls for a billion dollars in liability insurance, as well as 100 million in cash reserves, for oil-spill cleanup. I don’t know how they came up with those numbers as the costs associated with oil spills seem to quickly rise into the multiples of billions of dollars.
What’s most interesting about the conditions is that the only condition that really matters to those most galvanized against the pipeline proposal is the condition that a spill or leak never happen. It is, of course, impossible to make this promise, and the very idea of liability insurance presumes the possibility of an accidental – or otherwise – pipeline failure.
A few weeks ago an aging pipeline appears to have ruptured in a small Arkansas town. It literally flooded some streets with upwards of 10,000 barrels of oil (estimates fluctuate). Plentiful photos and video were taken of ‘rivers’ of oil flowing down otherwise pleasant neighbourhood streets.
Understandably, residents there weren’t impressed. Risk analysis and a lengthy safety record don’t mean much when the failure happens right in your own backyard.
In the case of Northern Gateway, the backyard – at least long stretches of it – include a lot of our own backyards. As proposed, the pipeline would pass right through Burns Lake.
So when a pipeline proponent talks about ‘risk analysis’ when it comes to Northern B.C. watersheds or rivers, it’s understandable that many consider no level of risk to be acceptable.
When the time comes for a political decision to be made, the one thing we can be sure of is that the decision will be mostly influenced by those nowhere near where the pipeline will run, or where it could possibly leak.
I’m not sure what Northern B.C. means to the southern mainland, where the bulk of the B.C. vote lay, or what it means to the rest of Canada. It’s a concept, an area on a map, not a reality. Its remoteness and distance from a large urban (voter) base keeps it relatively pristine, but its remoteness also keeps it far from the experience of the overwhelming majority of voters.
The bottom-line cash-value of underground oil reserves will probably sway the final decision in favour of a pipeline. It might not be Northern Gateway; if not, it will probably be some other one.
It feels like our backyards are too small up here, not densely-enough populated, to sway political will. As long as the review process is focused on conditions then you can bet that pipeline proponents will offer to meet those conditions.
It may be a gamble that the north is forced to take whether it wants to or not. We should be looking at those conditions quite closely; they may define a large part of our experience of the north for a long time to come.