Les Leyne: It’s hard to see bitumen reaching Pacific

VKA-Leyne02832.jpgFor the second time in two years, the National Energy Board has compiled a monumental study of every issue to do with an oil pipeline and concluded it’s in the national interest to build one. The benefits outweigh the risks and adverse effects. The country would be better off with a pipeline than without one.

So why is there such a heavy discount on the findings? Why is all the expertise hooted down and the process ridiculed? Why do the odds still look so long against both the Northern Gateway line to Kitimat and the Trans Mountain line to Burnaby, when they both technically have the federal seal of approval?

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The three main reasons are the fine-tuned environmental sensitivities on the coast, the increasing importance of getting First Nations’ buy-in on megaprojects and the fact the farther west you go, the less important “national interest” becomes in people’s minds.

By the time you get to Vancouver Harbour, which would see about 30 more tankers a month if the Trans Mountain line is built, B.C. interests outweigh the national imperative on pipelines by a wide margin. And those interests are completely different.

Stack the southern resident orca population up against Alberta’s need to diversify its market for bitumen and see what any coastal resident cares about. It’s not even close. Same with all of the coast-specific issues that were raised during the hearings, as compared to abstract projections about a pipeline’s contribution to national GDP growth.

British Columbians care about fire-ravaged Fort McMurray residents as people. But as far as their economic interests are concerned, it’s a different story. Even if there are B.C.-specific benefits along the 1,100-kilometre route to the coast, the potential hazards once the product gets to salt water remain top of mind here.

The actual pipeline doesn’t require any engineering miracles. Eighty-five per cent of is just twinning a line that’s flowed safely for decades, through much tamer terrain than what would be traversed by the Northern Gateway line. The only real hurdle along the route itself is the need to keep the First Nations onside, something the company claims progress on.

It’s when the oil gets to a refinery in Burnaby that all the worries and the arguments start. The departing tankers represent all the fears about destructive spills and all the angst about climate change, Big Oil and so on. The tankers aren’t even technically part of the National Energy Board’s jurisdiction. But the worries are so overwhelming that the NEB extended its review to include them. The panel found “significant adverse” effects, but said the national interest outweighs them. We’ll see about that.

The B.C. preoccupations partly explain why the NEB spends so much time covering its own derrière when it grants these approvals. It attached 209 conditions to the Northern Gateway line two years ago. That’s so many that two weeks ago, the company asked for three more years to fulfil them, which would extend the pre-approval stage to 15 years.

It imposed 157 more conditions on the Trans Mountain line on Thursday. That’s 366 conditions on two different pipelines, which is bordering on ludicrous.

The B.C. issues are also obviously top of mind with the politicians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in a lose-lose position when it comes to approving the NEB recommendations. He has already created yet another panel to weigh First Nations concerns, which will just add to the paperload on his desk when it comes time in November to take a stand.

B.C. Liberals have been buying time for years on the lines. Environment Minister Mary Polak’s first response Thursday was a reminder it’s a federal responsibility (uttered with a sigh of relief). B.C. has a legal obligation to do a quick review of aboriginal implications, which will apparently run in tandem with the federal panel’s work.

She also noted that meeting the five conditions will be a challenge.

Opposition Leader John Horgan said the Trans Mountain line is “not in the public interest” and B.C. Green Party Leader MLA Andrew Weaver dismissed the NEB process.

Maybe some day, Alberta bitumen will get to an ocean and we’ll all be richer. It’s just hard to see it being the Pacific.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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