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This 2007 photo shows construction near Grassland, Alta. on a pipeline running from Edmonton to the oil sands near Fort McMurray. (Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail/Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail)

This 2007 photo shows construction near Grassland, Alta. on a pipeline running from Edmonton to the oil sands near Fort McMurray.

(Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail/Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail)


Pipeline to prosperity or channel to catastrophe? Add to ...

“People are debating in two different tones,” Mr. Leach said. “And I think that's still where we're at in Canada. We haven't been able to find a position that we're comfortable with, to say, ‘Here's why it makes sense for us to have an oil-and-gas industry,’ in a world that’s concerned about climate change.”

Keystone XL was mostly a U.S. conversation, but the Northern Gateway is a profoundly Canadian affair. When I visited the Great Bear Rainforest last year, I stayed in the remote village of Hartley Bay, a Gitga'at First Nation settlement of 160 accessible only by boat and float plane. If the pipeline is built, the Gitga'at will watch an oil tanker larger than anything that has ever navigated their fishing grounds churn past almost every day. They saw the B.C. ferry Queen of the North – less than half the size of a supertanker – sink in those waters just a few years ago, so they are not soothed by Enbridge’s promises of “world-class” marine safety.

Alberta's bitumen currently flows at the rate of 300,000 barrels a day down the Trans Mountain pipeline, operated by Texas-based Kinder Morgan, to the port of Vancouver. Northern Gateway would add 525,000 barrels and greatly expand the industry's access to the new market most coveted by Alberta's oil-sands industry, one not likely to greet it with a star-studded protest: The pipeline is, first and foremost, a gateway to China.

Since the plan was announced in 2005, Enbridge executives have talked vaguely about “the Pacific Rim” and name-dropped California, but recent talk has dropped much of that pretense. Two oil companies partly owned by the Chinese government – China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. Ltd. (Sinopec) and CNOOC Ltd. – have already invested.

Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert has suggested that such access to Chinese customers is critical to the growth of the whole industry. “If we don't soon figure out how to get the product to Asia, the investment is going to dry up,” he told a Bloomberg reporter recently. “The Chinese want to see things happen. If we want to continue to be open to Asian investment, there comes a quid pro quo in their mind and that's coming up fast.”

Northern Gateway's fate will be decided officially by a three-member Joint Review Panel, which will begin hearings in early 2012. Its trial in the court of public opinion, however, has already begun.

Opposition among the first nations along its route is strident; Enbridge offered them a 10-per-cent stake in the pipeline, and was flatly rejected. In March, 2010, the Coastal First Nations – an alliance of nine nations along the coast – issued a blunt declaration that “oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters.”

Should it pass, the Gateway surely would make a lot of money for companies headquartered in Houston and Beijing as well as in Calgary, and it would fulfill a certain vision of Canada as an “energy superpower.” It also may tether the Canadian energy economy to China's for a generation.

And symbolically, the pipeline would be a fitting monument to Canada's resource history – a horizontal exclamation point at the end of five centuries of exploitation, from beaver pelts to mining, forestry and cod. Indeed. Enbridge has touted it as a piece of national infrastructure, akin to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

There's a tendency in some circles to treat the oil sands as a prairie aberration, but part of the reason the industry has thrived is that it's so consistent with the country's traditional economy. The oil sands are as Canadian as a Hudson's Bay blanket.

There's a more recent Canadian tradition, though – the one that celebrates moderation, fair play, stewardship and compromise. It gave rise to the national parks, land-claims tribunals, Nunavut, Greenpeace and the Montreal Protocol. It argues that Canada can do more with its natural abundance than extract, export and exhaust it at maximum speed. When Enbridge touts its pipeline-safety measures and marine stewardship – the double-hulled boats, the master mariners tugging the tankers carefully past Great Bear's salmon streams – it is sincerely attempting to participate in that vision.

Yet sincerity is not the same as authenticity. Avoiding an oil spill is not a substitute for reducing greenhouse gases. The conversation has skipped ahead a generation while Canada slept. Catching up could begin with the simple agreement that the wild land of the spirit bear is no place for pipelines – but also that there will probably be a place for pipelines, at least for the near term. But that would be just the start of an honest discussion of Canada's uncharted energy future.

Chris Turner is a Calgary-based author. His book The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy is being published this month by Random House.

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