Skip to main content

Mike Harris, former premier of Ontario, is a senior business adviser at Fasken Martineau and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

Canada is a resource nation. In every region, its natural resource sectors, including mining, forestry, energy and oil and gas, support vital social programs and provide stable, well-paying jobs.

However, regardless of their economic contributions, major infrastructure projects face intense scrutiny – as they should. In order to proceed, these projects must balance economic development with environmental and safety protections.

Consider, as just one example, the Northern Gateway pipeline, recently approved by the federal government. Since being proposed more than a decade ago, the project's journey hasn't always been easy. It has faced tough criticism. But thoughtful debate has taken place and ideas have been exchanged that have resulted in a better pipeline proposal.

As a former premier, I know first-hand the experience of fighting for economic development for your province and its people, but not to the detriment of local communities and the environment. Receiving social licence for resource projects must be the leading objective for proponents; public input and consultations are paramount.

In 1999, my government introduced Ontario's Living Legacy, a provincial strategy that added 378 new parks and protected areas totalling 2.4 million hectares. The strategy allowed for more than 65,000 Ontarians to express their opinion on the use of Crown lands. We worked hard to ensure the province's forests met the needs of all concerned, including anglers, hunters, naturalists, and cottagers, as well as industry. Consultation with aboriginal peoples was critical.

The overarching objective was balancing Ontarians' needs and expectations with those of industry, providing for greater land and resource use certainty. In short, we were working to ensure that projects had social licence.

In British Columbia, Premier Christy Clark deserves credit for putting forward tough but fair conditions that must be met for all heavy oil projects in B.C. They include environmental reviews, marine oil-spill response, land oil-spill prevention, aboriginal engagement and economic benefits that reflect the risk borne by the province. Ms. Clark is ensuring that no project is built without meeting the needs and interests of B.C. and British Columbians. Northern Gateway has committed to meeting her conditions.

Northern Gateway has been clear about the project's economic contributions: The company says construction of this $6.5-billion project will create more than 3,000 jobs; it says the completed project will sustain 560 new long-term jobs in B.C alone. It says that over 30 years, it will contribute $300-billion to Canada's gross domestic product, it will invest $300-million in employment contracts for aboriginal communities and it will offer $32-million a year in earned salaries.

Further, Northern Gateway argues it will help Canadians develop transferable skills. More than $3-million is being provided to support skills training – skills that will be useful beyond any single project.

But economic benefits must not come at the expense of sacrificing Canada's environment. Here, too, because of debate and Ms. Clark's tough but fair conditions, it appears that Northern Gateway has made significant progress, including added leak detection systems, isolation valves and pump stations that will be staffed around the clock.

Northern Gateway has committed to only using double-hulled tankers and licensed B.C. coast pilots. Experts say the project's spill response capabilities will be three times better than currently required.

On top of these technical innovations, Northern Gateway says the pipeline will be monitored all day, every day from a central control station. Remote pump stations will always be staffed and the pipeline will have bi-weekly aerial surveillance.

There is still more work to be done. The project was subject to a rigorous and independent Joint Review Process, which attached 209 conditions to the project. The pipeline must still meet Ms. Clark's conditions, including strengthening engagement with aboriginal communities. However, at the moment, it is clear that Northern Gateway is working hard to balance economic development with safety and environmental protection.

For this, both Ms. Clark and Northern Gateway deserve credit. I encourage both to continue working together so Northern Gateway can be built. Canada's future economic prosperity depends on it.