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(Andrew Querner)
(Andrew Querner)

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

Perret, an economist, has a background in automotive marketing, where she discovered that you could sell a lot of cars “if you gave away free power locks.” She is now charged with selling Gateway, and has considerably more to offer. Gateway foresees $2.6 billion in government tax revenue over 30 years, 15,675 person-years of construction employment, and 217 long-term jobs on the pipeline and marine facilities. Excluding Edmonton, the pipeline crosses land populated by about 275,000 people; of those, fewer than 15% are native. But Enbridge has offered to fund a 10% ownership stake for affected First Nations, an amount worth, on average, $13,578 to each native person between Edmonton and the coast.

Still, it’s been a hard sell. “A lot of it has to do with trying to educate people, because a lot of things that people aren’t familiar with, they’re scared of,” Perret says. That requires putting in “a lot of effort to sell the brand and explain to people what the product is. We think that if people understand more about the project, they would be less afraid of it.”

Part of her argument is rooted in this cow pasture—or, more precisely, in the industrial development that punctures the horizon around it. The Enbridge site is wedged between the Shell Scotford refinery and the partially built BA Energy Heartland upgrader, which will process heavy oil sands bitumen into lighter crude. Other companies with similar ambitions populate the area: Giants like Total, Suncor and Statoil all have land nearby.

The Industrial Heartland is not without controversy itself. Nearby residents are worried about health impacts, and have watched, unhappily, as the province transferred a local protected area into the hands of a major corporation in the name of development.

But those corporations pump enormous amounts of capital into paycheques and government—and that is Perret’s point. The oil needs to flow for the money to flow. “We have a fantastic lifestyle in Canada,” she says. “And the only reason we have that is because we export more than we consume of the natural resources we have.”

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If anyone can be expected to buy that argument, it’s Tim Duhamel. He is the chief administrative officer in Bruderheim, the municipality that neighbours the kilometre-zero pasture. Bruderheim is surrounded on three sides by heavy industry, and much more is coming. Duhamel has read perhaps 15 emergency response plans in the past year alone, many from companies using ingredients far more worrisome than crude. Not that he is complaining. Industrialization has long brought wealth and opportunity to this place, including a new residential development that will substantially boost the local population and tax revenue. “From a Bruderheim perspective, Gateway is probably the least scary thing that we got out there,” he says. “It’s going through lands which are designed and intended for industrial use.”

Yet, for Bruderheim, Gateway still poses a potentially major problem. The Heartland has been built with the expectation that crude will be refined and processed in Alberta. While Gateway is capable of shipping refined products, its rationale lies in its ability to deliver bitumen to Asian refineries, whose lower cost structure allows them to pay more for the unrefined product, transform it into gasoline and jet fuel and still turn a profit. And if China refines the oil, Alberta doesn’t. Gateway could actually hurt Bruderheim—and could, in fact, be one more example of how Canada is a mere hewer and drawer, not a manufacturer.

“One of the big things we’re fighting for now is to keep the value-add here in the province versus building pipelines that take the bitumen away,” Duhamel says. A pipeline like Gateway could transport more than oil. It could transport jobs.

“We’re essentially just taking our resource and giving it away,” he says.

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If there is one truth about any industrial project, it is that people are far more likely to chance disaster when there’s something in it for them. This is why three First Nations have asked Enbridge to move the pipeline route onto their territory, so that they can derive revenue from it. It’s why Darwin Alexis, a councillor in one of those nations, can walk onto the proposed route, where a thoroughfare the width of a football field has already been cut through the forest to accommodate three existing pipelines, and say, “the impacts are here already. So there’s no big impact.” Gateway would cross the Athabasca River just east of the lands of the Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation, pass directly in front of their new Whitecourt, Alberta, casino and traverse some 250 kilometres of their traditional territory. It’s worth it, Alexis and the elders here believe, if Enbridge builds a community recreation centre they have been hoping for. “We are working with industry to meet our needs,” Alexis says.

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