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gordon gibson

Newspaper publisher David Black holds a jar of raw bitumen as he speaks about his proposal to build a refinery in Kitimat, B.C., to refine oil from the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In a startling development, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline idea has been resurrected. Until Friday, the smart money was calling this line doomed by overwhelming political forces. Its chances must now be at least 50-50.

The startling development is a proposal for a $13-billion oil refinery at Kitimat, B.C., that would provide 6,000 construction jobs for five years and 3,000 direct jobs thereafter, as well as thousands of service spinoffs. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenues would be generated annually. In effect, our resources would have value added here instead of in China. No government could ignore that kind of opportunity.

On the environmental side, the idea would vastly reduce concerns about tanker accidents. No longer would the floating behemoths be carrying heavy bitumen. Instead, the cargo would be diesel, gasoline or jet fuel, all of which evaporate quickly after a spill. Environmentalists should be overjoyed.

The proponent is David Black, a highly successful and respected British Columbian. He has built a chain of 150 newspapers with annual revenues of half a billion dollars. His interest in this idea started during his time as chair of the BC Progress Board, a body appointed by the B.C. government to assess the provincial economy and its ability to provide social services. Central to this was looking for ways to add value in the province rather than exporting raw materials.

Mr. Black is bankrolling the environmental assessment application, which will begin immediately. But even he cannot write a cheque for $13-billion, so major financing must be found for this project to proceed.

He notes that the major Canadian oil companies would benefit greatly from a pipeline to the Pacific coast. International markets would pay so much more for our oil than do the Americans, who have us "over a barrel," so to speak, because our existing pipeline system makes them our only customer.

Net new revenue to Canada could be as much as $15-billion a year, a bonanza to be taxed for health care and the like.

That said, Mr. Black advises quite candidly that those companies have to date shown no inclination to provide financing. In their opinion, refining is the low-profit side of their business and they think they can just bull through a crude pipe and sell the raw material. Just about every political analyst would say those companies are crazy, but Big Oil has never been known for sensitivity to public opinion.

The reaction to this idea might change their minds – or not. If not, there might well be – almost certainly would be – entities in China or elsewhere around the Pacific Rim that might see this ticket to our oil as an opportunity. There is a lot of potential here for a number of players.

Not least of these are the governments of Canada and Alberta. Each wants to improve Canada's terms of trade in our resource base, which remains the foundation of our national wealth. Of course, we must over the long run translate this natural capital into human capital, but we need to finance that process, which resources are doing. So Canada and Alberta have good reasons to make this refinery happen – up to and including financial support – for which they would be richly rewarded in tax revenues.

As usual, the politics in British Columbia are a bit different. The Liberal government has been ambivalent about the Northern Gateway project, looking to boost the benefits for B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix, highly likely to form a new government after next May's election, has been clear: No.

His reasoning is obvious: The environmental risks of the pipeline and tankers carrying bitumen are out of balance with the potential rewards of a few hundred permanent jobs for B.C. – with most of the money and jobs going to Alberta.

The refinery would change that: The tanker issue would essentially be eliminated, in the process adding thousands of good, unionized jobs, something close to NDP hearts.

Questions remain. Enbridge must prove the pipeline risks to be minimal. Governments must deal fairly with northern first nations. So we are in for some interesting discussions.

This is an astonishing opportunity that simply must be carefully and fairly assessed. The anti-oil sands crowd will predictably damn it, being opposed to all development. Others should keep open minds as the dialogue unfolds.