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Only an idiot would dare to predict the course of the epic battle over the Northern Gateway pipeline that officially begins on Tuesday. I'm not that idiot. But I can predict it will make the fight over Keystone XL look like a skirmish in a sandbox.

Environmental groups argue that the pipeline, which will carry heavy oil from the oil/tar sands of Alberta to the Pacific coast, will imperil vast tracts of pristine wilderness as well as the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples. The reality is far more interesting.

Neither Kitimat, B.C., the coastal town where the pipeline would end, nor the Haisla people, whose ancestral land it is, are strangers to development. The town is home to a giant aluminum smelter and a deep-sea port. Billions of dollars are flowing in to build a new liquid natural gas terminal. The 1,500 Haisla (only 700 of whom live in the town) will soon collect more money in rents and royalties than they receive from the federal government. They are dead set against the pipeline – for now. And the rat's nest of aboriginal title issues in B.C. means the deal could be tied up in the courts for years.

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More than 700,000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines already criss-cross Canada. But for the worldwide environmental movement, any pipelines that carry heavy oil from Alberta are the embodiment of hydrocarbon-spewing evil. They could be nuclear-bomb-proof and it wouldn't matter. What many pipeline opponents really want is to shut down the oil/tar sands altogether.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken to calling these opponents "radical groups" funded by foreign money. It's true that Canadian groups do get money – lots of it – from well-heeled foreign backers. And they've used it well. For years, they've run rings around the even better-heeled oil and pipeline giants, who've been pretty good at extracting bitumen but pretty bad at making their case with the public.

Somewhere between these two rhetorical extremes is the voice of common sense, which is barely audible in all the din. Unfortunately, the two-year-long public hearings into the Northern Gateway pipeline are unlikely to enlighten citizens who really want Canada to strike a sensible balance between economic and legitimate environmental interests. The National Energy Board will hear from no fewer than 4,000 intervenors, most of whom will be repeating the same objections over and over. Then it will make its recommendation to the cabinet, which is free to overrule it.

Unlike Barack Obama, Mr. Harper won't let domestic opposition influence his decision. No prime minister would. The economic case is so compelling that any government in power would support it. A thirsty world wants our oil, and the more efficiently we can get it to them, the better. And better access to markets could add $131-billion to Canada's economy by 2030, according to a study by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy. That includes more than $27-billion that would go to governments in taxes and royalties. "The rewards of additional pipelines for all of Canada are too great to ignore," says the institute's Michal Moore. "Pipelines must be a national priority."

Canada is hardly unique in the battles over new and unconventional forms of energy. Discoveries of shale oil are fuelling an energy boom in job-hungry states across the U.S. – and also a firestorm of controversy. The truth is, no form of energy extraction is risk-free. The trick is to find the level of risk that's politically acceptable, and hope to avoid nasty surprises. No one wants a tanker spill. But all that money could help improve a lot of native schools.

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