While much of the focus on environmental effects of the proposed Northern Gateway project has been the risk of oil spills from seaborne tankers, the federal joint review panel report this week said one of the biggest dangers of the pipeline will be for caribou and grizzly populations.
The twin pipeline would transport oil sands crude 1,177 kilometres from Bruderheim, Alta., to the port in Kitimat, B.C. The federal panel tasked with looking at the environmental costs and potential social and economic benefits said that, between those two points, the pipeline – combined with other development – would likely have significant "adverse effects" on both woodland caribou and grizzly bears.
"No matter how many conditions they put into it, the animals don't have much of a say," said Nadleh Whut'en First Nation Chief Martin Louie.
In the 209 conditions it recommended for approval of Enbridge Inc.'s controversial project, the panel said the pipeline company must map the locations of caribou habitat, develop a habitat restoration plan and file regular monitoring reports. Other environmental monitoring conditions would include grizzly bears. Proponents for the project have noted that about 69 per cent of the proposed pipeline route crosses areas that have already been disturbed.
But even with these measures, the permanent right-of-way for the underground pipeline would have to be mostly cleared. The federal panel said there is uncertainty over whether Northern Gateway Inc. could control access to project roads and clearings through the forest. The proposed pipeline would likely add to the habitat squeeze for the Little Smoky herd of boreal caribou in Alberta, as well as four B.C. caribou herds and eight separate grizzly bear populations.
"What happens as soon as you put access in, that allows people back into those areas that were formerly pristine areas, or very difficult to get into," said wildlife biologist Lana Ciarniello, whose research includes B.C. interior grizzly bears.
What often happens, Ms. Ciarniello said, is a hunter looking for moose or other ungulates ends up confronting a grizzly by accident. "What normally results in those circumstances is a dead bear."
But with tens of billions of dollars at stake, the panel concluded: "The potential adverse environmental outcomes are … outweighed by the potential societal and economic benefits."
This is not the first time energy development has trod on grizzly bear or caribou territory. In northern Alberta, woodland caribou populations are in rapid decline due in part to oil sands development. In an interview on Friday, Enbridge chief executive Al Monaco said that Canadians generally support energy development, but "the challenge we have is demonstrating and illustrating and giving people confidence about the environmental and safety aspects of the project."
The federal cabinet will make a final call on the project by July.
With a report from Jeffrey Jones