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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 ...

Worse, Mr. Harris said, was the company’s reluctance to meet its opponents. In 2010, it developed a grid to determine which meetings to attend, assigning more points to larger rooms, the presence of media and the likelihood of facing audience questions. Too many points, and Enbridge stayed away. The result, Mr. Harris said, is that for the better part of a year, the company spoke largely to small clusters of friendly faces who didn’t ask many questions. What the company needed to do instead was “talk to people who don’t like you,” he says.

When the grid appeared, “that’s when I said, ‘I’m out of here. You guys are nuts.’”

Others watched the company decline opportunities to warm local relationships. Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for the Skeena-Bulkley Valley, which includes the final and most contentious stretches of the Gateway route, spent months begging Enbridge to hold community forums jointly with First Nations and environmental voices. He wanted to give the public a chance “to see the pros and cons of the project and ask questions comprehensively.” He accuses the company of “ragging the puck” and eventually decided Enbridge wasn’t interested.

“That was a big thing for me. We’re kind of trusting people up north and if you act in good faith and do things well, you maintain it. But if you break it, it’s real hard to get it back,” he says. Mr. Cullen is today an ardent critic of Gateway.

On the coast, skepticism grew so ingrained that the company raised eyebrows even when it sought to put safety questions to bed. Last year, Enbridge announced $500-million in Gateway upgrades, including thicker pipe and more safety shut-off valves. Instead of feeling reassured, people immediately questioned the safety of the original proposal.

“What the hell did you have there to start with?” asks Richard Neufeld, a former long-serving B.C. minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources who is now in the Canadian Senate. He was “shocked” by the proposal. “That sent up a huge red flag to me – and I would assume sent up a huge red flag to anybody else along the route.”

The general view on Enbridge, he added, “is they haven’t done a good job. I’ve heard them say they’ve had thousands of consultations and whatnot. It doesn’t matter how many you have. If you don’t convince some people that you’re having conversations with, it’s not going to happen.”

Changing perceptions

In 1997, crews began to travel a 3,719-kilometre path from northeastern British Columbia to Illinois, laying the Alliance natural gas pipeline in the ground. The route cut a big diagonal line across the upper reaches of the continent, but not always a straight one. At the Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation near Whitecourt, Alta., for example, the pipeline came up to reserve borders, then dodged across a highway, and passed beside the reserve, before again jumping across the highway and continuing on its way.

That wasn’t the original route. But after “negotiations at that time went sour” between Alexis and the builders of Alliance – now half-owned by Enbridge Inc. – the pipeline route was amended to jog around the nation, recalls Cameron Alexis, who recently stepped down as chief of the Alexis. He now serves as Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

When Enbridge proposed building Gateway along a similar route to Alliance, history came flooding back. The Alexis had seen this before – and the last time, they had gotten very few benefits from a pipeline whose proximity still saddled them with risk. With Gateway, they were determined not to see another pipeline “that’s not going to benefit anyone, especially our community,” Mr. Alexis says.

The Alexis asked Enbridge to accommodate its concerns. Enbridge responded by shifting onto reserve lands both the route and a pump station, a large surface facility that will, if it’s built, generate long-term lease revenue for Alexis. The pipeline itself will spin off taxes.

“I don’t think Enbridge treated us any different than anybody else,” Mr. Alexis says. But Alexis itself is different. Its people have worked in the oil patch since the 1950s. Some of its members have actually worked in pipeline construction. In addition to the Alliance experience, that familiarity smoothed a path for conversation – and led to what is now, by the standards of Gateway, a comfortable relationship.

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