It's been a political hot potato, a byelection talking point and water cooler fodder for months. On Tuesday, the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline was delivered as a lunchtime economic primer to the Canadian Club of Victoria.
In a 40-minute pre-lunch presentation, Janet Holder, executive vice-president of Western access for pipeline proponent Enbridge, laid out the economic case for the 1,170-kilometre project. She pointed out B.C. would get plenty of economic benefit from it and tried to assuage safety and environmental concerns over the moving of bitumen by pipeline from Alberta's oil-sands to Kitimat, where it would be loaded on tankers for export to Asia.
Holder told a soldout crowd of 100 that Canada stands at the brink of "a potentially historic shift" in its trading relationships - from dependence on the U.S. to a more stable model that trades increasingly with growing markets in the Pacific Rim.
"This is important for all of us because oil exports have become the cornerstone of Canada's economy," Holder said, noting in 2010 crude oil was the country's largest export at $50 billion. "Every day that passes that we're not able to access tidewater and the world energy market is a lost opportunity ... for all of us who cherish our standard of living and value the public services supported by a thriving export economy," she said.
Holder noted that Canada sells its land-locked oil at a discount of millions of dollars per day, mostly to the U.S.
"Pipeline capacity is the key to increased energy market diversity - the ability to link increased production with changing global patterns of demand. What we don't have right now is the pipeline capacity to efficiently and safely transport our oil to these new consumers," she said.
Holder said concerns B.C. was not getting enough benefit from the project are short-sighted. She said it's the largest private infrastructure project in B.C.'s history and will result in more than $800 million in goods and services sourced from B.C. during the construction, 560 long-term jobs once operational and $1.2 billion in tax revenues.
Holder didn't shy away from the topic of safety, calling the 2010 leak of three million litres of oil into a creek that feeds the Kalamazoo River in Michigan a humbling experience.
She said the company has since reviewed and improved its processes and procedures and has promised the systems involved in monitoring the Northern Gateway pipeline will outstrip any pipeline in the world. "There is safety built upon safety to try and ensure what happens in Michigan cannot happen again," Holder said.
The remarks gave at least one audience member heartburn before lunch was served. "I think Enbridge has a credibility problem ... why would we trust a company that continues to have oil spills and does public gimmicks such as disappearing islands from their advertisements that they are spending millions of dollars on trying to win us over," said Caitlyn Vernon of the Sierra Club. She was referring to an animated Enbridge video showing Douglas Channel near Kiti-mat missing about 1,000 square kilometres of islands.
And while she didn't take Holder to task for her lesson in oil economics, Vernon did say there's too much risk to warrant any economic benefit.
"All it takes is one accident," Vernon said. "Why would we put 45,000 coastal jobs we currently have at risk for a few hundred permanent, long-term jobs? It's not worth the risk.
"I think we face a choice of the kind of future we want to live in from a climate change perspective.
We know the science is clear ... we need to stop building fossil-fuel infrastructure in the next few years if we want to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change."
When asked by one member of the luncheon crowd when Enbridge was going to walk away from the project in the face of growing opposition, Holder was unequivocal.
"Why aren't we giving up? We are not, frankly, because we believe it is in the best interests of Canada and we do know there are a lot of people saying yes to it," Holder said. "And we have the same obligations to the yeses as we do the nos. It's our job to help people understand, whether you are on the fence, a yes or a no, the realities of this project, how does it relate, what is the economic value and what impact on the environment and how to manage the project."
Victoria residents get a chance to weigh in with their views on the project, which is currently before a federal joint review panel, when the panel holds hearings here Jan. 4-11.
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