When Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver announced plans this week to strengthen Canada's oil-spill defences, critics were swift to disparage the proposed measures.
It was just a cynical effort to deflect widespread criticism the government was receiving in Vancouver for closing the apparently much-loved Kitsilano Coast Guard station, some groused. It was a too-late PR ruse designed to salvage the Northern Gateway pipeline initiative, others said. B.C. New Democratic MP Nathan Cullen maintained that the initiatives were an exercise in greenwashing – a term for efforts designed solely to propagate the perception that an organization's goals are environmentally friendly.
Intentional or not, Mr. Oliver's news conference served to illustrate just how poisoned energy policy debate is in Canada, particularly as it pertains to the construction of oil pipelines.
As things stand, there is almost nothing that the federal government can say on this subject – at least in British Columbia – that isn't going to be immediately denounced. Mr. Oliver can assert that his plan would bring Canada closer to a "world-class" system for oil tanker safety, but few care and fewer still believe him. He could promise that every oil tanker entering the port of Vancouver, or leaving the port of Kitimat, would have eight tugboats surrounding it to guarantee it would never run aground; it wouldn't matter.
Any reasoned debate on this subject seems impossible at the moment.
I'm not sure there is one party responsible for the current state of affairs, but I would lay much of the blame on the ham-handed way the Northern Gateway pipeline project was rolled out. Enbridge put little effort into laying the groundwork for their plans, perhaps assuming that British Columbia is just like Alberta. Anyone with even a scant knowledge of B.C.'s political and environmental history could have told the company it was going to face stern opposition from activists and first nations.
Because the company did such a poor job of telling its story, of trying to allay concerns people would naturally have over spills on land and water, it completely lost control of the script. Instead, the narrative – pipelines are horrible, tankers will destroy the province and possibly the world – was defined by the environmental movement and first nations leaders who felt they weren't properly consulted. Enbridge was knocked out before the fight really got started.
Lately, the company has been trying to wrest back control of the tale, airing television commercials with happy background music to try and make its pipeline appear benign. But all the syrupy soundtracks in the world can't help this project now. It's too late. The real question is whether the Northern Gateway experience has killed any hope for reasoned dialogue on other pipelines in the future.
I'm concerned that it has, at least for several years. And if U.S. President Barack Obama kills the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, it will embolden critics of the Alberta oil sands and make other proposed projects, like the one Kinder Morgan has on the books, that much tougher to sell.
I think Mr. Oliver's government also knows Northern Gateway is done. The moves it's making now – new spill response measures, a federal envoy to work with first nations on energy infrastructure development – represent the kind of spadework that should have been done long before now. Having all but given up hope of saving Gateway, Ottawa is effectively working to help other pipeline projects on the drawing board.
But at some point, the federal government is going to need to know whether the West Coast is a lost cause in terms of being the terminus for a pipeline carrying crude oil designed for export to Asian markets. There is a new urgency around this matter, given how the rise of shale gas production in the United States drastically, and almost overnight, changed the oil export picture for Alberta. Ottawa can't afford to still be having the pipeline debate in B.C. 10 years from now – at some point it, and Alberta, need to move on.
With so much at stake, both environmentally but also in terms of the enormous wealth contribution energy exports make to the Canadian economy, it's regrettable that a cogent conversation on this subject isn't occurring. Instead, any attempts at lucid discourse are being drowned out by overly dramatic, self-serving rhetoric that provides no good purpose at all. And we all lose in the process.