Al Monaco was in New York this week speaking to investors about all the good things Enbridge is doing. The pipeline company's CEO says the next five years look extremely bright, with a capital spending program totalling $44-billion.
"Over the next three to four years, we're going to open up 1.7 million barrels per day of new markets in North America," Mr. Monaco told me from the Big Apple.
Unfortunately, the straight-talking energy executive could offer little good news on another front: Northern Gateway. While opening up new lines to the U.S. Gulf Coast makes Enbridge money and stockholders happy, it's the project currently on ice that everyone wants to talk about. Despite being given conditional approval by the National Energy Board and the federal government, few believe Gateway will ever see the light of day.
Many in the oil and gas towers of downtown Calgary were buoyed by the ascendancy of Jim Prentice to the premier's office in Alberta. Mr. Prentice has a stellar reputation, most critically among B.C.'s First Nations. After leaving federal politics, he spent time consulting with aboriginal groups along the Gateway route on Enbridge's behalf. The company hired him to see what it might take to convince native pipeline holdouts to reconsider their opposition.
Consequently, when Mr. Prentice told The Globe and Mail recently that Enbridge might have to reconsider Kitimat as the planned terminus for the pipeline, it caused major reverberations. This wasn't a newbie premier talking through his hat. This is someone who knows intimately the degree of resistance among Coastal First Nations to the idea of filling up supertankers in Kitimat with raw bitumen and then having them navigate the sacred waters of Douglas Channel.
Mr. Prentice knows it will never happen and was simply speaking the truth. A loading point somewhere further north, like Prince Rupert, always had a greater chance of political success, construction challenges aside.
I'm sure Mr. Monaco wished the Premier hadn't ventured an opinion on the matter, though. Asked what he thought when he read Mr. Prentice's remarks, the Enbridge boss chuckled. He wasn't about to pick a fight with someone he genuinely admires and believes is good for the energy business.
Mr. Monaco is not a stupid man and undoubtedly knows Kitimat is a hopeless cause, but he can't admit that publicly. The only thing he can say is the company is trying to meet the 209 conditions imposed by the National Energy Board when it gave the project provisional approval last December.
So far, the company has not officially met any of those requirements. And then there are the five conditions of the B.C. government. Ben Chin, spokesman for Premier Christy Clark, said only one of those have been met, the first: that the project pass an environmental review. Meantime, Enbridge is nowhere close to meeting the fourth stipulation: that legal requirements regarding aboriginal and treaty rights be addressed. "It's a total red light," said Mr. Chin. And there won't be any discussion about B.C. getting a fair share of the financial rewards from the project – the fifth condition – as long as that fourth isn't met.
"Kitimat is a total non-starter. The project is dead if that's the terminus," another senior member of the B.C. government told me matter-of-factly.
Art Sterritt, the tough-minded leader of the Coastal First Nations, was quoted as telling The Vancouver Sun this week that Mr. Prentice's comments about Kitimat were tantamount to an admission the project is finished. I'm not sure about that, but the remarks would indicate that in its current incarnation, the venture is a pipeline to nowhere.
Enbridge's options aren't pretty. If it does change the pipeline's end point, it will have to go back to the NEB for approval of a new submission. That could take two or three more years; no one knows for sure. At some point, Enbridge or its partners will say enough's enough and terminate the project, with all the economic implications that has for Alberta and the country.
"We haven't really considered a Plan B," Mr. Monaco told me. "We're focused on the plan we have in front of us. Nobody said it was going to be easy."
No, but there seems little sense in beating a dead horse either. Enbridge needs to begin considering its Gateway options, and the sooner the better.