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The waters of the Douglas Channel near Kitimat, BC April 8, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

2015 is the year of the next federal election. It is also the year in which Enbridge Inc. might theoretically be able to "break ground" for its Northern Gateway pipeline. The project may still be up in the air and a matter of intense controversy in the election.

As yet, the battle lines have not been clearly drawn. The Conservatives are essentially in favour of the pipeline, having approved it, subject to 209 conditions. The Liberals, the party most likely to be able to defeat the Conservatives, have said that Gateway should not have been approved, but they have not suggested any alternative. Nor have they said that bitumen from the oil sands should not be exported from the West Coast of Canada. Indeed, as Steven Chase of The Globe and Mail has pointed out in a series of tweets, Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Leader, seems to have implicitly advocated the exporting of Canadian bitumen to Asia. Why else would he have objected to the Conservative government's freeze on foreign state-owned enterprise investment in the oil sands, if not to enable Chinese and other East Asian investors to import bitumen?

Two propositions should be held in mind by most, if not all, of the authorities and interests concerned: that Canada does need to export oil from the oil sands across the Pacific Ocean, and that the safest route should be chosen.

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For example, it is not out of the question that Prince Rupert, B.C., a deepwater port further north (and closer to Asia), would turn out to be a better end point for such a pipeline, although the landscape that it would cross would be more difficult to build it on.

Northern Gateway's western end at the port of Kitimat, B.C., is at the northeastern end of the deep, comparatively narrow Douglas Channel, where the water is often choppy. The proposal is that all the tankers will be double-hulled, pulled by tugboats, and accompanied by a B.C. coastal marine pilot, which would make spills extremely rare, but no such precautions are infallible.

Oddly enough, even the chemical dispersants – one called Corexit is contemplated – that would be used to clean up the water if there is a spill on the Kitimat route are not yet permitted for such a purpose under some Canadian statutes.

Indeed, with the greatly increased traffic in the harbour of Vancouver, it is entirely possible that the urban, heavily populated environment of the Lower Mainland is actually a more dangerous place than Kitimat and the Douglas Channel.

Similarly, moving oil by rail may be riskier than by pipeline (and then by sea) – as the horrors of Lac-Mégantic have shown.

Yet another option would be to refine the bitumen in or near the oil sands, not on any economic-nationalist ground, but rather to make the oil less harmful before it gets to the shores of the Pacific.

In the meantime, Enbridge should do its best to fulfill the numerous conditions, and the federal government should prepare itself to evaluate the company's success or lack of success in doing so, in good faith.

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It is encouraging that the federal Conservatives have now adopted a calm, measured tone on Northern Gateway, in contrast to the shrill remarks about "foreign radicals" two years ago by Joe Oliver, when he was the natural resources minister (he is now the Minister of Finance), as if Americans had no right to voice their opinions about the oil sands and Northern Gateway.

The Prime Minister and Greg Rickford, the Minister of Natural Resources, have expressed some degree of detachment, emphasizing the role of the regulators. Enbridge itself has spoken about how much they have learned from the process.

Some observers had speculated that the goverment would invoke the clause of the Constitution Act, 1867, that gives Ottawa paramountcy over the provinces for "undertakings" that are "declared by the Parliament of Canada to be for the general Advantage of Canada or the Advantage of two or more of the Provinces."

The Harper government could certainly do that legally, for the very arguably advantageous "undertaking" that is Northern Gateway, but in the present range of views about Canadian federalism, it would be treated as an outrage, especially to the government and people of British Columbia, starting with Premier Christy Clark, wielding her famous five conditions for any consent to Northern Gateway.

Mercifully, however, no one in the federal government has asserted any intention to do anything so provocative. And there is a widespread recognition that the pipeline cannot be built before a number of lawsuits are dealt with.

The government was imprudently late in engaging in serious diplomacy with the natives of the region, but in the end its constitutional obligation (as inferred by the Supreme Court of Canada) is to consult and accommodate; there is no veto. At this point, the consent of Coastal First Nations is unlikely.

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This week, Martha Hall Findlay, a former Liberal MP and leadership candidate, now at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, wrote an excellent op-ed in The Globe, emphasizing Canada's need to diversify the customers for our oil and gas. She pointed to the ability of Canadians in the past to be nation-builders, starting with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

It's worth remembering that the CPR was finished four years after the time that had been solemnly promised to British Columbia. Northern Gateway may well be the best choice, but Canada should take the time to get this right.

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