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(Andrew Querner)
(Andrew Querner)

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

The route from Edmonton to the coast is long and difficult. The kilometre posts on the proposed path march over prairie and untouched forest, across a pristine Rocky Mountain pass and under rivers that flow thick with salmon. They snake through farmland and clear-cuts, through valleys once frequented by dinosaurs and still stalked by grizzlies. They traverse towns and reserves populated by foresters and First Nations and environmentalists, each of whom has spent the past few years eyeing Gateway’s possible arrival and grappling with a complex series of calculations. For them, the fundamental question, permeating every concern—the salmon and the clams, the rivers and the mountains, the dollars and the cents—is this one: Is it worth the risk?

The question has produced a remarkable range of answers. Some are expected: There is no mystery about the opinions of the fishermen who have blockaded before and will again, the blue-collar workers who are hungry for jobs, the First Nations who have banded together in opposition, the U.S. environmental groups that have funded the fight against a project tied to their bête noir, the oil sands.

But were you to drive the great length of the route, you would find that many actors in this drama do not fit media archetypes. Take, for instance, a paleontologist who sees opportunity in development, or an industrial booster who is leery of how the pipeline might export jobs to Asia.

When Enbridge began work on Gateway in 1998, it saw a chance to build pipe on bedrock economic principles: that sellers do better when they have more buyers, and profit tends to follow demand. Shipping to Asia, the company has argued, will provide the oil patch with an alternative to stagnating crude demand growth in North America. It will skirt the possibility of climate-based import restrictions in the U.S. and open up a market so hungry for energy it can be expected to pay a $2 to $3 premium per barrel over what U.S. refiners pay today.

Not everyone believes that final argument. Competitors like Kinder Morgan have pointed out that it’s difficult to predict crude pricing with much accuracy, never mind willingness to pay the sort of “demand premium” Enbridge expects.

As it has sought to make that case, Enbridge has, quite by accident, helped to unearth a remarkably nuanced portrait of Western Canada. Even in this breadbasket of natural wealth—a region rich with grain and oil and timber and coal and rare metals—the industrialization of the hinterlands has been equal parts blessing and curse. Gateway may be a mere pipeline, a utility for conveying crude. But long before the machines start digging up earth, long before the workers start laying their long ribbon of steel, it has also become something more significant.

It has become a 1,172-kilometre invitation for an often-ignored part of the country to consider what it is, and what it wants to be.

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A pair of cows ruts between stands of aspen as Michele Perret opens a fence onto a plot of grazing land and warily walks in.

“Just watch for the guy with the ring in his nose. That’s when we have to run,” she says, dodging cow patties as she strides through the grass in black business attire.

She stops and looks past the beef, contemplating for a moment what the future holds for this place. Like the Wet’suwet’en cabin, it is just a dot on a line on a map—but that line starts here, in a plot of land northeast of Edmonton, a place that is surrounded by some of Canada’s most important energy development. Gateway’s kilometre zero sits at the confluence of refineries and a series of pipelines—each of them delivering product here that could then be shipped overseas.

“Isn’t this a perfect place to put in a pump station?” Perret says, smiling. “This is the Alberta Industrial Heartland. They’ve rezoned for industrial growth. And they’re ready for us.”

Perret is a senior manager in municipal relations for Enbridge, part of a team of six working in community liaison for the Gateway project. On most pipelines, Enbridge uses one or two such staff. But most pipelines aren’t as ambitious as Gateway, and most haven’t attracted the kind of attention it has.

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