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Wetsuweten Nation protest against proposed Enbridge Gateway pipeline, July, 2010

We’re on a collision course to violent conflict, with little to gain for BC.

This lovely, peaceful province of ours is flying headlong into a situation which customarily breeds violence. Those are harsh words, but this is how I see the pipelines/tanker situation developing.

Some will claim that I’m irresponsibly creating a self-serving prediction. I am, however, the chronicler of the news, not the maker of it. The catalyst pushing us to the brink is already brewing up its potent mix.

The battlefields are three in number: the Enbridge Gateway pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat, the oil tankers that would ply our coast to draw from that pipeline, and the Kinder Morgan line which already brings tar sands gunk — more politely called bitumen — to Vancouver harbour and is proposed to be upgraded to bring far more. All three of these routes pass First Nations unceded territory.

Before getting into that, there are some background facts that turn this question into one of potential conflict.

1. In spite of what Enbridge and Kinder Morgan, the pipeline companies involved say, oil spills are not risks but certainties.

2. These spills cause permanent damage. The Exxon Valdez catastrophe in 1989 is still not cleaned up.

3. Enbridge has an appalling record with spills. Its spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, next to a built up area, is 18 months later still not yet cleaned up and many doubt it ever will be.

4. Spills will certainly happen on land and on sea, and with their potential locations, Enbridge will not get to them soon enough to do anything. In fact, this is the horrible truth. Spills will happen far away from the company, and even if it could get to the scene, there is nothing it can do except put out press releases to mollify the citizens. Let’s suppose, for illustration purposes, a pipeline bursts halfway between the tar sands and Kitimat. How does Enbridge get to the spill and when they do, how do they do anything about it?

Google Enbridge Kalamazoo and you will see that the company has paid $550 million in clean-up costs but that hasn’t yet relieved the affected community of the toxic effects of the bitumen that was spewed in its midst.

The Enbridge Gateway pipeline to Kitimat is destined to cross 1,000 rivers and streams in its 1,070 kilometre journey, including three critically important salmon spawning rivers.

5. This pipeline may be great news for Alberta, but there’s nothing in it for B.C. except environmental grief. Enbridge is telling us that there are billions of dollars coming to B.C. because of their pipelines, but don’t tell us how this will happen.

I don’t want to put this in economic terms, however, because the sticking point is that this pipeline guarantees environmental catastrophe which, surely to God, is enough to dump it.

6. We’re told the Enbridge pipeline will mean thousands of jobs in B.C., but the cold truth is that most of those will be short-term construction jobs which history demonstrates inevitably go to experienced pipe constructors from out of province.

This raises the ultimate question. Do jobs trump the environment? Will we, like the man who uses shingles from the roof for his fireplace, destroy our environment to create jobs? If so, why not solve Vancouver’s unemployment by logging Stanley Park and fill it with condos as a follow-up?

Approval process lacks credibility

Now let’s deal with the process in getting a pipeline approved. There will be federal and provincial environmental hearings. It is not in their mandates to decide upon whether or not the pipeline should go through — that’s already decided — but how the company will proceed environmentally. I’ve been to these meetings and as I’ve said before, I’d rather have a root canal with no anaesthetic than go to another. You’re not there for five minutes before you recognize that the “fix is in.”

Now the real issue. How to get this pipeline and subsequent tanker traffic approved without having First Nations get in the way?

There is scarcely a square inch of the proposed route that doesn’t pass through First Nations land claims. Moreover, even if the company somehow gets approval for the pipeline, there’s no point getting the sludge to Kitimat if you can’t get on a boat. This brings in a new group of First Nations, and they vow that no tankers will move down that coast.

How do Enbridge and the governments deal with aboriginal resistance?

A legal expert at the University of Calgary law school says simply that the company doesn’t have to get consent from all the First Nations involved; the government need only “consult” with bands involved. Whether the expert, professor Nigel Bankes, is right or not, First Nations believe they do have a veto and are proceeding accordingly.

(We cannot overlook the possibility that First Nations are using the issue of their proclaimed veto simply as a bidding ploy to drive up the price they’ll agree to. After attending their large press conference and hearing what one chief after another had to say I do not believe that myself, but that possibility must be recognized.)

What we have then is a clash of legalities. The First Nations, following their laws and customs, are up against laws of Canada that they do not acknowledge. It’s not my purpose here to say who is right. I just lay before you the realities as I see them.

If — and I believe this is the case — First Nations resistance is real and they will not be bought off, 2012 will be a very long and deeply troubling year.

If Enbridge and the governments attempt to push the pipeline and tanker traffic through, it’s very hard indeed to see how serious consequences can be avoided.

Postscript: the Kinder Morgan pipeline from the tar sands to Vancouver and consequences of a tanker spill is another story to be told in the next article.

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