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opinion

ggibson@bc-home.com

Oil prices are down, but they will be back up, as always. Meanwhile, new supply comes on stream from existing construction. So the great Canadian issue remains new oil pipelines from Alberta. For supporters, these long-term projects will generate untold billions of dollars every year, including tax revenue to pay for all the health and education and other good things. For opponents, the pipelines will facilitate the very destruction of the planet through carbon release, or at a minimum foul our streams and oceans.

This is surely of national consequence. So it is passing strange that the debate is being led by premiers and even mayors. After all, the Constitution gives Ottawa exclusive jurisdiction in this area, including the Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan and Energy East pipelines. And the government with the power stands mute.

Yes, the National Energy Board is holding hearings, but that process is getting minimal respect from opponents on three grounds.

First, that it is an alleged rubber stamp. I don't believe that, though. The technical and route environment and aboriginal investigations are thorough.

The second, correct observation is that the process is not considering the supposedly most important matter of all, namely the carbon consequences of extracting oil from what opponents call the "tar sands." But the NEB does not have jurisdiction here – the matter of carbon emissions is a wriggling monster squarely in the lap of Ottawa, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government doesn't want to acknowledge it.

Finally, that for some opponents, the only legitimate answer is "no." Minds are made up, and closed. Indeed, if you truly believe that planetary ecological collapse is imminent, it is your duty to lie down in front of the bulldozers.

But most people are neither oil men nor hard enviros. They understand that much of our prosperity and many of our social services are paid for by petroleum production. They also want a sustainable environment. It's a matter of balance.

This majority in the middle cries out for leadership. The leadership of those opposing these projects is strong and skillful. You might think that the oil industry would be leading the pro-pipeline charge, but Big Oil – the major U.S. companies – quite like the current situation. Canadian oil has no Canadian pipes to get it to the ocean, and so we have to sell it south at a significant discount.

For neutral leadership then, that really leaves governments, academics (who are all over the place) and the news media, which as a whole is more interested in writing about protests than in deep analysis.

Local governments bend to local protests, but this is a national issue. Where is Ottawa? Scared and silent, with an election on its way. Mr. Harper has not spent one ounce of political capital on this file. If things remain that way, my guess is that Gateway and Kinder are toast in our time, and Energy East is a gamble.

There is a win-win-win response to all of this, if any national political party has the savvy to step up. The public opposition is really against pipelines to export bitumen and the response is simple: Refine the bitumen in Canada.

The politics are simple. Most Canadians think adding value in our own country to our own resources is a good thing. And it would add a lot – a lot – of jobs and taxes. Tick.

Refining bitumen onshore eliminates the widespread worry about tankers carrying the heavy substance running aground and fouling the seas. Refined products (such as gasoline and diesel) evaporate if spilled. Tick.

Some such refining capacity already exists in Quebec (using foreign oil), a plus for Energy East. More could be built in New Brunswick. Well-developed plans exist for a 150,000-barrel-per-day refinery in Sarnia, by the Bowman Centre. Labour groups have funded a study that says a new refinery in Alberta would be economic. In B.C., David Black's huge plan for 500,000 bpd at Kitimat is well advanced and there are two other new proposals.

The markets and the business plans are there, as are the technology and the feedstock. The remaining piece is the finance. In each case, proponents say, all that's required is a government guarantee of some of the debt. Equity financing looks feasible.

This could be a problem-solver and a nation-builder. And no new oil is added to the planet – just a displacement of foreign oil. Earth to Ottawa.