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A totem pole on the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation that was a gift from the Lummi Nation in Washington state, frames the Chevron Burnaby Oil Refinery in the distance after the totem was unveiled during a ceremony in North Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday September 29, 2013. The totem pole is meant to be a symbol of cross-border unity among Coast Salish nations opposing the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and expanded oil tanker traffic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (Darryl Dyck/CP)
A totem pole on the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation that was a gift from the Lummi Nation in Washington state, frames the Chevron Burnaby Oil Refinery in the distance after the totem was unveiled during a ceremony in North Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday September 29, 2013. The totem pole is meant to be a symbol of cross-border unity among Coast Salish nations opposing the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and expanded oil tanker traffic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Gary Mason

Pipelines likely to stay a pipe dream Add to ...

Despite optimistic signals that a framework agreement clearing the way for pipeline development in B.C. is imminent, nothing could be further from the truth.

It could be years, if at all, before a heavy-oil pipeline is built in B.C. The fact that B.C. and Alberta may be getting close to a pipeline pact does nothing to remove several other significant obstacles in the way of oil flowing west.

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And it certainly doesn’t change the long odds of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline proceeding. That proposal is all but dead. In fact, it is difficult to find anyone in the highest reaches of the B.C. government who doesn’t feel the same way.

As those following this story are aware, Premier Christy Clark said any pipeline exponent needed to meet a handful of requirements for their project to be considered. They included: approval from an environmental review, the development of a world-leading marine and land oil-spill response strategies, and meeting all legal requirements that surround aboriginal and treaty rights.

The fifth and final condition insisted B.C. get its fair share of whatever revenue was derived from the movement of oil through the pipe, a provision that angered Alberta. Now, according to B.C. officials, there seems to be some movement on this provision.

It’s unlikely that this means Alberta has agreed to hand over some of the cash it will make from the movement of oil to the coast.

It has already said it won’t part with a red penny of its royalties. Premier Alison Redford suggested that her B.C. counterpart look elsewhere for the revenues it’s seeking, either from Ottawa or the pipeline proponent.

And this is likely what’s happened. Either the federal government is prepared to share the windfall it would receive from any pipeline, or the B.C. government has received approval to apply an export tax of some sort on any oil being loaded onto tankers at a West Coast terminus.

But any agreement between Alberta and B.C. on the five conditions would only do one thing: allow Ms. Clark to make a more concrete environmental and economic case for their development. But even if she managed to get a sweet deal on condition five, pipelines are still going to be an awfully hard sell in B.C. – even for a politician possessing Ms. Clark’s powers of persuasion.

For starters, any pipeline needs the approval of First Nations groups whose territory it crosses. There are several aboriginal leaders in B.C. on record as saying that they don’t want a pipeline crossing their land under any circumstances; the risk of a spill and the threat it would pose to hunting, fishing and their way of life is too great.

Then there are B.C.’s formidable environmental organizations. They’ve also made it clear that the five conditions do not satisfy their concerns about pipelines. As Ian McAllister of the conservation group Pacific Wild told me Monday: “The fifth condition aside, the other four conditions are just non-starters. They’re so far from being achieved it’s almost laughable.”

Most recent polls on pipelines show a majority of British Columbians are against their go-ahead. Ms. Clark has conceded that she could not endorse pipelines unless she had the “social licence” to do so; in other words, unless the public supported the idea.

That could be extremely difficult to achieve.

Any provincewide debate on the future of pipelines would likely split the province in half, with those in the north and Interior buying a pro-pipeline sales pitch, and people in Metro Vancouver being opposed to the idea.

Even if a five-conditions pact is reached, Ms. Clark is not in a position to promise Alberta much. All it would do is give her something to campaign on. Her skills on the hustings may be pipeline proponents’ best hope.

But for now, pipelines to B.C. remain mostly pipedreams.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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