The Canadian government released details April 17 of a plan to dramatically “streamline” (as press accounts put it) public oversight for big energy and mining projects, capping the timeline for federal reviews and ceding more regulatory oversight to the provinces. The “Responsible [sic] Resource Development” plan would impose a 45-day limit to decide whether federal environmental review is necessary after a new project is announced, and then limit such reviews to two years. The number of agencies allowed to participate in such reviews—now numbering 40—would be limited to three: the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. It would also allow the provinces to conduct such reviews in place of these agencies, if they meet the standards of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Resources Minister Joe Oliver made clear that an intended beneficiary of the reform is Enbridge Inc’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would ship oil from Alberta’s tar sands fields to Canada’s West Coast—and has been meeting stiff opposition from environmentalists and First Nations in British Columbia. (Dow Jones, CTV, April 17)
The new policy comes a week after the announcement that hundreds of federal scientists in charge of environmental monitoring are being laid off as part of the 1,500 government employees affected by Ottawa’s budget cuts. Said MP Hélène LeBlanc of the opposition NDP: “Doctors, biologists, chemists are being shown the door. These scientists monitor environmental changes that can threaten the health of Canadians.” (ENS, April 17)
China is the obvious destination for Canadian oil exported via the West Coast, and the announcement of the review reform comes as PetroChina has entered a bid to build the Northern Gateweay line and expressedand interest in joining the consortium that will run it. “They have made the point to us that they are very qualified in building pipelines, and we will take that into consideration when we are looking for contractors,” said Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel. “It’s an open bid process. They are a very big organization, they build a lot of pipelines, and they would love to be involved from what they have told me.” (Financial Post, March 28)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is openly using the prospect of the Northern Gateway and exports to China as a bargaining chip to pressure the US for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to Texas. While calling the Keystone XL line a “no-brainer” for the US when approval was pending last year, he began aggressively courting the Chinese after the Obama administration nixed the Keystone route—it topped the agenda on his a state visit to Beijing in February. Chinese businesses have been heavily investing in Canadian tar sands projects in recent years, with PetroChina most recently buying out its partner on an Athabasica Oil Sands Corporation project for $674 million to take full control. (ThinkProgress, March 23)
The Northern Gateway route would cut through British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, which is sacred to the Tsimshian people. Tsimshian territory surrounds the town of Kitimat, the proposed Pacific terminal. Enbridge proposes to lift a moratorium on oil tankers in northern British Columbia’s waters, leading to fears of a devastating spill—which opponents say is practically an inevitability. Opponents also say that there is actually glut in export pipeline capacity in western Canada, pointing to the political nature of the Northern Gateway project. Current oil production in western Canada leaves 41% of existing export pipelines empty, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which finds, “Based on industry production estimates, no additional export pipelines are needed out of the tar sands for at least another 10 years.” (Indian Country Today, March 28; Northern Gateway website, March 14)
Some 800 marched against the Northern Gateway project in Victoria, BC, April 15, occupying the lawn of the provincial legislature building. Environmentalists and First Nations representatives—some in traditional garb—pledged to fight the project to the end. Representatives of Alberta’s Mikisew Cree, whose lands are adjacent to the tar sands fields, said that cancer rates are disproportionately high in their communities due to contamination of lands and waters with mercury and other heavy metals from the extractive process, with vast toxic sludge ponds left across the landscape. These operations are anticipated to massively expand to meet the new pipeline’s capacity. (APTN, Calgary Herald, April 17)
As he woos Chinese investment, Harper ironically attacks opponents of the pipeline as “foreign-funded” radicals. Harper made his comment just before his Beijing trip. Natural Resources Minister Oliver wrote in an open letter a few days later: “These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.” The comments followed press accounts revealing that Tides Canada, one of the environmental groups opposing the project, has a number of donors from the United States. (ICT, March 14)
Indigenous opponents of Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper pipeline to the United States have appealed for aid to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez—who is a close ally of China. Perhaps they have re-thought this appeal in light of Harper’s attempt to play the China card.