BC battles Northern Gateway

By Leslie Campbell, September 2012

The news is both heartening—and surprising.

Watching a video produced by Enbridge the other day, my first reaction was: This is not a fair fight. Enbridge has a lot of money to throw at deceptive marketing and PR. And they also seem to have a pretty powerful member on their team: Our resource-extraction-obsessed prime minister, with his determination to limit environmental assessment periods and dig up and export Canada’s resources—quickly.

But in recent days there’s been news on a variety of fronts that makes me realize that, despite its significant resources, Enbridge may well lose this fight. 

The first piece of news was what actually prompted me to view that Enbridge promotional video. A Victoria woman, Lori Waters, after noticing that an Enbridge video had conveniently omitted 1000 square kilometres of islands and narrow, twisting waterways in Douglas Channel—the route tankers would take—filed a complaint with both the Competition Bureau and Advertising Standards Canada, claiming Enbridge was being deceptive. She also created a corrected graphic showing those islands and channels in the tanker route and shared it widely through social media. This was well reported in the news media and caused an embarrassed Enbridge to make some changes. So kudos to Lori Waters.

Then on August 22, Vancity credit union announced it was no longer going to include Enbridge shares in its socially-responsible investment funds, “based on the US National Transportation Safety Board report on the Enbridge 2010 pipeline spill in Michigan.”

Back in May, a local environmental group, Forest Action Network (FAN), which has an account with Vancity, had challenged the credit union to live up to its ideals and divest of Enbridge stock. Vancity listened to FAN and likely to others aghast that Enbridge could be included in anything viewed as “ethical” or “socially responsible” given their record. In May, Vancity attended Enbridge’s annual general meeting with a resolution that Enbridge withdraw its Northern Gateway application. That obviously didn’t work, so Vancity re-evaluated and ultimately decided the firm was not a good match for those with both money and a conscience.

Says Zoe Blunt of FAN, “Everyone should tell their bank, credit union, or investment firm to cut their ties to pipeline companies. Tell them why it’s wrong to invest in corporations that destroy watersheds, wildlife, and communities.” Congrats to both FAN and Vancity.

Another investment firm that attended Enbridge’s AGM was NEI Investments. It too is threatening to pull Enbridge shares from its portfolio. Its “proxy alert” on its own is enough to scare off all sorts of investors, ethical or otherwise. Citing detailed information about First Nations’ opposition, concerns over lengthy litigation, costly delays from protests and blockades, long term damage to relationships with First Nations, and damage to Enbridge’s reputation, it states “They (Enbridge) are misleading investors that they are achieving certainty.”

The same day I heard about Vancity, we all learned that the BC NDP, if elected next May, will immediately withdraw from the federal Northern Gateway pipeline review and conduct their own environmental assessment. (The BC Liberals signed away this right in 2010.) The NDP had already come out swinging against the pipeline and with this announcement they’ve made a commitment to a specific action they need to take in order to kill the project—which puts them a big step or two beyond the Liberals.

This means voters will have a pretty clear choice come election time, with Northern Gateway a potentially decisive issue.

Even media mogul David Black’s surprising missed-the-point $13-billion Kitimat refinery proposal is unlikely to muddy these clarifying waters. Black’s dream currently has no investors or commitments, and it would still require twin pipelines carrying bitumen and diluent to cross terrain that is both physically and politically treacherous. And simply building a refinery wouldn’t guarantee that no bitumen would be shipped offshore, as he seems to imply.

Though Black’s refinery proposal currently looks like a pipe dream, his vast media ownership puts him in a special position to influence the political process. He’s shown in the past that he’s not above using his community papers to sway people on central political issues. In 1998, at the height of the Nisga’a Treaty negotiations, he ordered his BC papers not to carry editorials supporting the treaty and to carry an eight-part series of essays written by Mel Smith in opposition to the treaty. 

How would his papers—many of which are the only local media in the area they serve—impartially cover the pipeline issue and his part in it? He told the Vancouver Sun that this time he wouldn’t tell his editors in Kitimat and Terrace what to write. But he owns more than 90 other papers in BC, and reporters and editors competing for scarce jobs don’t need to be told where chilly waters lie. 

Fortunately, it appears increasingly unlikely a pipeline, or a refinery, will ever be built. Most BC First Nations along the route are fiercely opposed to it. With Enbridge’s horrendous track record—804 spills between 1999 and 2010—their opposition is unlikely to change just because there might be a refinery at the end of it. As First Nations are joined by local governments, church bodies, investors, NGOs, the public at large, and the leading provincial political party, the odds seem good that even Stephen Harper may have to admit that Northern Gateway is a lost cause and look elsewhere to peddle his bitumen.

Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. On October 4, the Sierra Club will host Gerald Amos speaking on the Northern Gateway pipeline project. Amos was chief councillor for the Haisla First Nation for 12 years and has been a leading voice for conservation in Canada for 30 years. See www.sierraclub.bc.ca or call 250-386-5255 for details.