There are good reasons to be skeptical about Victoria businessman David Black's surprise proposal for a $13-billion Kitimat refinery to save the Northern Gateway pipeline.
But the knee-jerk negative reaction underscores our collective political immaturity.
Black, who owns 150 North American newspapers, made headlines with a proposal to build a refinery to upgrade the oilsands bitumen from Enbridge's proposed pipeline before it was shipped by tanker to Asia.
Skepticism is warranted. Black has no experience in the energy industry, no financial backing and no support from any companies in the sector.
However, skepticism and closed minds are not the same thing.
Black's proposal, if feasible, addresses two concerns about Enbridge's proposal. It would ensure B.C. received a much greater share of the benefits in return for accepting pipeline spill risks - about 3,000 permanent jobs, and tax revenues. Premier Christy Clark has said the province needs a larger share of the rewards.
And with a refinery, a tanker disaster would be much less damaging. No blanket of crude oil on the ocean and shores.
Black's lack of industry experience is an issue. But he has a record of success in the difficult newspaper industry, and developed a broader perspective as chairman of the province's Progress Board. And he is prepared to invest his own money - several million dollars - in the initial environmental assessments.
The proposal deserves, at least, a debate on its merits. The oil and gas industry reaction was, unsurprisingly, less then enthusiastic. The industry sees good profits in transporting and selling bitumen, the raw oilsands resource, to Asia. A refinery adds complexity and risk, and the industry's concern is not Canadian jobs, but shareholder profits.
But if the choice is no pipeline providing access to Asian markets, or a pipeline with a refinery, the companies' position might well change. And Chinese energy companies could decide it's worth financing the refinery to protect their already substantial investment in the oilsands.
It's also noteworthy that Peter Lougheed, former Alberta premier and one of the most respected Canadian politicians of the last four decades, has argued that oilsands crude should not be exported in its raw form to create refinery jobs in other countries. He wants the refineries in Alberta; Black proposes they be created in B.C. It's a small difference.
Passions are understandably high in the Northern Gateway pipeline debate, in part because Enbridge has a dubious record and has done a dismal job of making its case. And it's understandable that a proposal from Black, a Liberal supporter, would be viewed with suspicion.
But this a serious issue, which deserves serious consideration. A Kitimat refinery would bring dramatic economic growth to the province's northwest and mitigate the risk of tanker traffic. It would not reduce the risk of a pipeline across the province's north, or address First Nations' concerns.
Those are the facts. And those are what British Columbians should be assessing in the aftermath of Black's proposal. Instead, there has been a rush to come up with reasons to avoid considering the proposal's merits, to choose sides rather than debate issues.
We can do better. The refinery proposal might not be economical or address the pipeline risks. But it deserves an intelligent debate, on its merits.
© Copyright 2013