Forget for a moment U.S. President Barack Obama's doubts about the Keystone XL pipeline. Whether the President decides for or against the project shouldn't deflect Canadians from asking within their own borders: How do we get to Yes?
Getting to Yes is becoming harder all the time. Fossil-fuel developments, pipelines, mines, dams, hydro-electric transmission lines and wind turbines are frequently contested, delayed or blocked.
Even when they're approved, the process for getting to Yes can take so long that projects lose their economic rationale, as with the now-abandoned Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, which shuddered to a halt after 10 years of review because the gas market had changed. Or, projects are postponed or killed because they face tough competition from overseas suppliers where approvals are not so protracted. Proposed liquefied natural gas projects in British Columbia face this very risk.
Environmental reviews, National Energy Board hearings, provincial regulatory board procedures – the regulatory institutions of governments – don't seem satisfactory, let alone definitive, to certain groups that flat-out oppose certain developments. They accuse those conducting the review of being biased, of the terms of reference being too narrow, of the process being hurried.
"We were not consulted" is a familiar refrain. This complaint might sometimes be justified. Other times – one might say often – the complaint is simply cover for "We don't want the project."
Put another way, nobody knows with precision how much consultation is enough. The oft-repeated phrase "social licence" is vague to the point of incomprehensibility, but critics take it to mean that they must approve, because they equate themselves with the general public.
When aboriginal groups get involved, and they frequently do, "consultation" takes on another, more complicated meaning, courtesy of recent Supreme Court of Canada rulings. Aboriginals often assume that "consultation" with them must produce their consent, which, in certain circumstances, it now does.
Pipelines carrying oil provide the sharp point of organized opposition. Three proposed lines, all within Canada, from Alberta's bitumen deposits to outlets on the country's east and west coasts are in various kinds of political trouble.
Some critics don't like bitumen oil, which produces more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil. Others don't like oil, period, and want as much of it to remain in the ground as possible. Some fear spills in their neighbourhoods or don't want construction nearby. Aboriginal groups point to unsettled land claims or argue that pipelines might endanger wildfowl, game or fish. In Quebec, environmentalists underscored risks to beluga whales.
In Quebec and New Brunswick, opposition from organized environmental groups, a few aboriginal groups and concerned citizens stopped even seismic testing for natural gas. These two provinces both have severe fiscal challenges and are big recipients of equalization payments from the rest of Canada. Neither, however, is willing even to authorize exploration for natural gas that, if exploited, might provide a sorely needed economic boost.
In both provinces, it's not a matter of deciding on environmental grounds whether or not to proceed. Groups there have made up their minds to be against testing or eventual fracking, and they have persuaded or frightened the governments into immobility. Getting to Yes is a debate that cannot even begin.
Mines and forest projects can face the same procedural snakes and ladders. In Northern Ontario, the so-called Ring of Fire chromite deposits will be tied up for years and years in environment reviews and aboriginal demands. Already, the major U.S. company interested in developing the deposits has walked away. Who could blame it?
If and when the provincial and federal governments decide to build a road to the deposits, without which nothing can happen, the road's review will take a very long time and will likely be sorely contested.
Environmentalists who abhor fossil fuels are very keen on wind power. Except that, as happened in Ontario, we see backlash against a) the inflated price for electricity from wind, b) the unreliability of steady wind, and c) the positioning of the turbines. "Not in my backyard" sentiments don't just plague wind projects – try suggesting the construction of a new nuclear power plant somewhere.
Environmental protection is obviously essential. So is a gradual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Aboriginal rights, however defined, are part of all sorts of debates. NIMBYism is a fact of life. Getting to Yes through these and other obstacles has never been tougher.