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Forget about B.C. pipelines until land rights resolved Add to ...

Harry Swain is a former federal deputy minister of Industry Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada

The news that a powerful coalition of landowners covering much of the Fraser River watershed objects to the planned Gateway pipeline from the oil sands to tidewater at Kitimat should have been less surprising than it was.

Likewise, Enbridge's faith in the National Energy Board’s formal process is not surprising, for the company is merely following the rules. But the truth is that both observers and Enbridge are likely to be wrong. As with Windy Craggy and the Prosperity Mine, the lesson is that B.C is not open for business, unless it’s urban, clean and green.

The landowners are of course the native nations of B.C., whose land rights have been shown by the courts to exist but in an undefined kind of way. No party -- not the Indians, not governments, especially not the courts themselves -- wants the specific content of those rights to be defined by court fiat.

All prefer negotiation. But those negotiations will have one set of winners, under the constitutional conditions we have chosen to live with, and the consequences will not be pretty for any elected B.C. government. So the negotiations are going slowly, despite the urgent need for clarity about land rights.

The objections of the first nations are not illogical. Enbridge, generally a quality operator, has had some well-publicized experiences with old pipelines bursting smack in the middle of ecologically sensitive streams. The proposed pipeline will cross many salmon-bearing tributaries of the Fraser, and the prospect of oil cascading all the way down to Steveston is alarming. And Enbridge’s promise that terminal procedures and tanker shipping will proceed without any harm, ever, is unconvincing given that they are not the ocean shippers and that no less a source than an audit by the Environmental Commissioner demonstrates that the Coast Guard has neither resources nor doctrine nor training to be effective in the case of a spill or grounding.

These risks can be greatly lowered by advanced (and expensive) engineering. Stream crossings can be armoured to a fare-thee-well with double walls, emergency valves triggered by pressure or volume drops, spill collection pits and the like. Terminal operations can be buoyed and their pump and valve systems programmed to shut down fast in an emergency. Tankers can have double bottoms and multiple navigation systems. All this will reduce ROI, lower risk to probably acceptable (but never zero) numbers and please the NEB. What it won't do is placate the land-rights owners. The Indians have had it -- their rights have been ignored for so long, and their concerns taken either for granted or as some second-level artefact of the arcane procedures of a distant and unaccountable regulator -- one which requires people who are not rolling in dough to hire highly expensive lawyers simply to state the obvious, namely that ownership has rights -- that they are not going to roll over on this one, no matter what the NEB has to say.

Observers of the West Coast scene are wondering if proponents of native land rights are going to wake up to the proposed twinning, by the U.S. firm Kinder Morgan, of the old Trans-Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, which will result in much larger tankers in Burrard Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Regulation lags here too. But maybe the fact that the oil will be going to the U.S. makes it all right.

So: the geopolitical dreams of Canadian nationalists wanting to see an alternative market for Alberta oil, the hopes of a great company that understands engineering and markets better than history, and the gleeful smiles of financiers from Toronto to Beijing are unlikely to be fulfilled any decade soon.

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