It wasn't a week after Barack Obama put the Keystone XL oil pipeline on ice for a couple of years that the Canadian proponent of the project made a somewhat surprising announcement.
TransCanada offered to reroute the pipeline around the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills area of Nebraska that had become the epicentre of opposition to the proposal. TransCanada's new position left many perplexed; why hadn't the company made that offer from the beginning?
The answer is money. Changing the path would mean adding an extra 65 kilometres of pipe and tens of millions of dollars to the bottom line. TransCanada decided to go direct – and cheap – and, in the process, badly miscalculated the environmental conflict its proposed route would generate. And by gambling that it could overcome any protests, TransCanada may now have lost the opportunity altogether.
I mention this as the National Energy Board hearings into Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline get under way near Kitimat, B.C. The project is Canada's own Keystone, and the hostility toward it is being framed in the same grandiose terms: the biggest environmental showdown Canada has witnessed in generations.
From the outset, concern has centred on Enbridge's plans to take the pipeline across northern B.C. to Kitimat, where gargantuan oil tankers would come to collect the Alberta crude and then take it out through the narrow Douglas Channel before hitting the open ocean and the far-off Asian markets for which the oil is primarily intended.
This plan has conjured up images of an Exxon Valdez-scale disaster in one of B.C.'s most pristine areas. The channel adjoins the Great Bear Rainforest, a 64,000-square-kilometre stretch of wilderness considered one of the most ecologically sacred on Earth. This is why both aboriginals and environmentalists are preparing such a fierce fight to kill the project. Right now, the odds are in their favour.
Which is why, in the end, a new Gateway route may have to be found. Some believe that it already exists and that Enbridge is bracing for this possibility.
In many ways, building the pipeline so it finishes at Prince Rupert makes more sense, anyway. You already have a world-class port capable of handling large tankers. And once they're loaded, it's a shorter journey to Asia than it will be from Kitimat. And there aren't nearly the same environmental concerns.
Enbridge is obviously aware of this. But it rejected this scenario because the pipeline would have to traverse parts of the Skeena Valley, a particularly complex and technically challenging stretch of terrain. There's a high risk of avalanche throughout this area, and the spring runoffs can often be fierce, churning up river beds in dramatic fashion.
This type of environment can be particularly troublesome for, say, a pipeline running underground.
The reason we know this is because there's already a pipeline that runs through much of this same area. It's a natural gas line that was built in 1968 and is operated by Pacific Northern Gas.
Greg Weeres, Pacific's vice-president of operations and engineering, confirmed that the Skeena Valley is taxing mountain topography. Over the years, the gas line has been affected by avalanches and land movement created by runoffs. Access is difficult; crews have to be flown in by helicopter to do repairs.
That said, the line has been operating for more than 40 years. And it will likely be running for another 40 and beyond that.
Given a challenge, engineers can do almost anything. Advancements in theory and design have addressed many of the problems early pipeline builders in Canada encountered. There's no question we have the minds to construct an oil pipeline to Prince Rupert that would be safe, reliable and efficient.
It would certainly be more costly for Enbridge. But when you're talking about a project worth tens of billions in revenue, it seems like a small price to pay. I wouldn't be surprised if this is ultimately where the company ends up. But like TransCanada, it probably will have to be forced into the move. And that comes with risks all of their own.