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The Douglas Channel is the proposed termination point in British Columbia for the Northern Gateway oil pipeline from Alberta. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Douglas Channel is the proposed termination point in British Columbia for the Northern Gateway oil pipeline from Alberta. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

How Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline lost its way Add to ...

Not far from Kitimat, B.C., on the rugged western shore of Douglas Channel, a plot of land is set to serve as the terminus of Enbridge Inc.’s $6.5-billion Northern Gateway project.

It is from this spot, if the pipeline can be built, that Alberta crude will pour on to supertankers, opening Canada’s energy industry to Pacific markets and providing a key western outlet for surging output from the vast oil sands. It’s an unremarkable tree-covered shoreline, but for Gateway it’s critically important.

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And in the fall of 2011, Enbridge nearly lost it, after the Haisla First Nation staged a bold attempt to seize control of the land in question – one of the most striking examples of the rancour that has swelled around the project.

Now Northern Gateway is mired in deep uncertainty. Local qualms have blossomed into broad opposition, raising questions about its viability.

The ill will Enbridge faces in building a project identified as vital to Canada’s international trade strategy speaks to the frailty of the many multibillion-dollar new developments planned by the country’s resource sector, which are key to the country’s economic future. Gateway has made clear there’s no certain path for resource expansion, even for projects with the full weight of government support behind them.

It was, after all, just over two years ago that Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver boldly declared: “Gateway, in our opinion, is in the national interest.”

Federal enthusiasm for Northern Gateway, however, has since appeared to cool as attention has shifted elsewhere. This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called TransCanada Corp.’s $12-billion west-to-east pipeline plan an “exciting” project “that will assure all of Canada will benefit from our energy industry.”

Yet the success of TransCanada’s Energy East plan will depend in some measure on the company’s ability to solve many of the same issues that Enbridge has faced on the West Coast – skeptical First Nations, politicians and activists – and avoid the tangled socio-political mess Gateway finds itself in.

In coastal British Columbia, Enbridge’s years of attempts to smooth the way for Northern Gateway have been met with a deepening sense of mistrust in local communities. In some places, the company’s efforts to win support have succeeded largely in strengthening the resolve among critics that it vanish from their province.

Northern Gateway, to be sure, is far from dead. It maintains broad resource sector support, its backers still give it solid odds of succeeding, and Enbridge still has months, if not years, to make the case that turning down this pipeline would do great injury to Canada.

But in the face of broad opposition, the prospects for Northern Gateway are decidedly cloudy. Indeed, it has become a kind of modern-day template for industrial projects gone wrong.

“It couldn’t be any worse for Enbridge. They have become a four-letter word,” says Robert Metcs, a consultant who has spent years working with B.C. First Nations on pipeline projects. Or worse. Enbridge is “sort of like the Harry Potter thing. Like the name you do not mention.”

The First Nations factor

It wasn’t always this way. Northern Gateway entered B.C. with a flourish few now remember. At the outset, Kitimat and Prince Rupert, a nearby coastal town, did battle for the privilege of landing Gateway. “The community at that time was quite anxious to have the terminal locate here,” recalls former Kitimat mayor Rick Wozney.

In the years since, however, Northern Gateway has become to some a textbook example of how not to pursue a major industrial development, particularly in the unsettled First Nations landscape of British Columbia, where corporations face great demands to employ sympathetic ears, not to mention hands willing to reshape plans wrought in faraway office towers.

Other companies interested in the Kitimat area “now come to us and they say they'll do the opposite of what Enbridge did to talk to First Nations,” says Ellis Ross, chief councillor of the Haisla.

Enbridge executives themselves acknowledge that they have made missteps: that in its early days, the Alberta company did not fully understand British Columbia; that it leaned too heavily on outside help; that it has not listened well enough.

But the company also argues that the outsized shadow over its name is not deserved, and the record shows its Herculean effort to engage with those along the 1,177-kilometre route. Former chief executive officer Pat Daniel devoted nearly a week of his time in 2009 to personally visit a series of coastal communities, staying late in some to hear the outpouring of opinion. The company has documented some 2,000 meetings with those along the route. It has flown First Nations to multiple-day primers on how pipelines work, and brought them together to discuss ways to profit from the project.

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