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Thomas Gunton is the director of the resource and environmental planning program at Simon Fraser University and is a former deputy minister of environment for B.C. who helped resolve B.C.'s 'war in the woods.'

B.C.'s recent decision to introduce regulations on bitumen to protect its environment – followed by Alberta's threats of economic retaliation – are a significant escalation of the growing conflict over proposed pipeline projects.

The cost of this type of conflict is well illustrated by the "war in the woods" battles in B.C. in the 1990s, which included large-scale protests, mass arrests and costly court battles that sullied Canada's reputation and left all Canadians worse off.

Fortunately, the war in the woods was solved by creative conflict-resolution techniques that can also be applied to the pipeline dispute.

The first step is to look at the underlying interests of supporters and opponents of pipelines. Alberta's interests are to ensure that its oil is sold at world-market prices. Opponents' interests are to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and avoid the adverse environmental effects of transporting oil, particularly by tankers along B.C.'s pristine coastline.

The Alberta and federal governments are attempting to meet the interests of pipeline opponents by implementing new measures to reduce GHG emissions through carbon taxes and other measures. While pipeline opponents would like to see even more aggressive measures, we are clearly moving in the right direction.

But while these policies will slow the growth in oil production and emissions, some expansion will still occur as projects currently under construction come on stream. Not surprisingly, Alberta and the oil sector have a strong interest in ensuring that this new production can be shipped to world markets, while critics want to minimize the adverse impact of doing this.

The second step in conflict resolution is to find alternatives that meet the objectives of both sides. The recent approval of the Keystone XL pipeline by the United States may provide the remedy.

Keystone XL is already largely built, and the decision by Nebraska to put the remaining portion along the existing right of way to avoid environmentally sensitive areas, and the fact that the project does not require any tanker traffic along vulnerable coasts, minimizes its environmental impact relative to alternative pipelines.

Keystone will add more than 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) of new capacity, which is more than enough to accommodate the 500,000 bpd of new production under construction and meet Alberta's needs to 2025, and likely to 2030 and beyond.

Adding Enbridge Line 3, which replaces an older pipeline, will increase capacity to 1.2 million bpd, more than sufficient to meet even the most optimistic forecasts for oil production. And both of these pipelines connect to the largest refinery complex in the world (the U.S. Gulf), thereby ensuring that Alberta receives world prices for its oil.

The good news is that building Keystone XL means the more controversial and environmentally risky pipelines – Trans Mountain and Energy East – would not be necessary. Trans Canada has already wisely decided to cancel Energy East, thus avoiding one major conflict between Quebec and Alberta. The next step in resolving the conflict is to figure out a way of shelving Trans Mountain or examine alternatives such as a scaled-down version that bypasses Vancouver and avoids using tankers by shipping the oil to Washington State refineries.

Opponents of pipelines would not be fully satisfied with the solution because some pipeline expansion would still occur. But a more aggressive alternative of blocking all new projects is unrealistic, and would simply result in the oil being shipped by rail.

Proponents of pipelines, particularly Trans Mountain, would also not be happy. But escalating a conflict to build a pipeline through the middle of a major city and jeopardize B.C.'s coast when alternatives can meet the same objectives of accessing world markets with fewer environmental risks does not make a lot of sense.

Conflict resolution always involves compromises. No party gets everything they want. But there is a compromise to the pipeline war that can go a long way toward meeting everyone's interests and is far better than the current acrimonious trajectory that will leave us all worse off.

The challenge for governments is to take advantage of this opportunity that has been provided by the U.S. approval of Keystone and the challenges to Trans Mountain to organize a collaborative dialogue to reach an agreement that avoids an unnecessary conflict and leaves us all better off.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley praised Nebraska’s decision on Monday to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to run through the state. But federal Green party Leader Elizabeth May called the decision disappointing.

The Canadian Press