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(Andrew Querner)
(Andrew Querner)

The Big Pipe: Enbridge's plan to connect the oilsands and China divides locals Add to ...

Behind a stack of stripped timber piled like a giant’s game of pick-up sticks, a log cabin is taking shape in the backwoods of northwestern British Columbia. A sawhorse stands on a mat of sawdust next to walls that have reached about halfway to their intended height. The ends of the logs, not yet trimmed, stick out at uneven lengths from the corners.

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The allure of building a cabin here, some 50 kilometres by slushy gravel forest road from the nearest highway, seems obvious. A hole cut for an entrance door perfectly frames a view of the swift green waters of the Morice River. The riverbank is populated by flyfishers casting for steelhead and hunters bleeding out massive moose carcasses. The dark evergreen forest is quiet. It is an outdoor idyll.

But it’s not the setting that has brought construction here. And it may be a mistake to call this a cabin when it is, in fact, a fortress. It has been built against a line on a map, a narrow yellow stroke that starts near Edmonton and ends at the Pacific. The line marks the future location of Northern Gateway, a massive 1,172-kilometre crude oil pipeline that may one day deliver Alberta crude to Asia. The cabin overlooks kilometre post 1,038, the spot where Gateway’s engineers plan to cross the Morice before tunnelling through the Coastal Range to reach tidewater at Kitimat, B.C.

They will, that is, if Calgary’s Enbridge Inc. can prevail against this restive part of the country, where the cabin has been built by a clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation as a brazen protest. Gateway remains years from being built—or even approved by federal authorities. But already, dozens of First Nations are linking arms with the federal NDP and Liberals to stop it, in part by bidding to ban the tankers that would take away the crude. And in the wilds of B.C., blockades are already being erected. “The clan,” says David de Wit, the natural resources manager for the Wet’suwet’en, “wants to make a stand.”

A thousand kilometres away, in a different province that could easily be a different universe, John Kampjes watches a robot milk a Holstein. He’s in one of the most modern dairy barns in Alberta. Completed last summer, it automates many of the processes that once dominated a farmer’s life: not just milking, but dispensing grain and cleaning manure, too.

The barn belongs to Kampjes’s son, Tom. Sitting here watching it work, John thinks back to the surprise phone call he received one morning in December, 2005. The caller said he wanted to talk about buying the family’s land. John had already retired, but he still owned hundreds of acres. Tom did, too. They figured they could be persuaded to sell for $5,000 an acre. Suncor and Petro-Canada offered so much more that the Kampjes could leap into a whole new league of farming. Tom “traded one quarter-section with a set of worn-out dairy buildings, and he bought four quarters back [and built]a state-of-the-art dairy barn,” John says. “It’s a dream come true.”

John now wears a Petro-Canada hat everywhere he goes. He has used his money to travel around the world, and to buy a shiny F-350 truck. He parks it a stone’s throw from where two pipelines already run beneath the flat farmland. Gateway would be just one more, reaching kilometre post 34 alongside the other lines. Once it is built and buried, crops will grow on top. The Kampjes family has no problem with it—especially since the pipeline could help the oil producers that have already brought so much wealth here. “I know what industry has done for this area,” John says. “Unbelievable.”

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Gateway is a project of remarkable scope and ambition, as befits a company that is in the top tier of pipeline companies in North America. It would cost an estimated $5.5 billion, making it the biggest project ever undertaken by Enbridge, and one of the biggest industrial projects mounted anywhere in Canada. It would run twin pipelines—one for oil exports, another to import an oil thinner called “condensate”—across two mountain passes and 773 rivers, creeks and streams, and would carry up to 525,000 barrels of blended bitumen each day from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., where the long arm of Douglas Channel delivers Pacific waters into a place that could serve as a terminal for supertankers. Those ships would be the last link between the Alberta oil sands and Asia. They would, for the first time in Canadian history, provide a substantial new export market for the country’s crude.

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