The present debate on the merits of the Northern Gateway proposal seems to be taking a disparate and strident course, with deeply entrenched and at times dogmatic environmental opposition, a B.C. provincial government that seems quite willing to prostitute the interests of its citizens for the right price, and a government of Alberta that quite reasonably expects that the constitution of Canada guarantees legitimate access for their resources to international markets. A number of important points have gotten lost in the shuffle:
Canadian citizens represent less than one per cent of the world’s population. Through an accident of history and to our considerable good fortune we control five or 10 per cent of the world’s resources of all types. Of course we are going to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water” — nothing wrong with that. Plenty of room for the most sophisticated of engineering and technology if we are to do it right. If we cannot manage our resources responsibly and share them with the world judiciously and efficiently we will not survive as a country. Our claims to further resources in the north will be laughable. We will truly become a footnote in the long sweep of world history. To throw up our hands and announce to the world that we cannot engineer and build an environmentally safe pipeline across northern B.C. is an admission of our present inadequacy as a country. What has become of the Canada that pioneered the building of transcontinental railroads?
Environmental advocates should carefully contemplate the Northern Gateway alternatives which are already apparent. It has been suggested that oil could be shipped to Prince Rupert on an existing railway for about the same cost as by pipeline. The history of rail accidents on this route indicates that this may be a more alarming alternative from an environmental perspective than a well-engineered and managed pipeline. Shipment of oil by expansion of the existing Trans Mountain line to the Lower Mainland for export through the Port of Vancouver seems to present even more of an environmental challenge, although it is worth noting that this line has been shipping oil to the coast for decades without notable incident.
Let’s get back to a more rational debate. Let’s carefully compare the technical merits of rail verses pipeline. If it’s pipeline, is Enbridge the right firm to responsibly engineer, build and manage the project? Recent history is a cause for concern. Can the aboriginal peoples along the route be guaranteed sufficient economic benefits and environmental safety to bring them onside? I suspect so. They have the same stake in the future of Canada as the rest of us. Ultimately the decision should be theirs and theirs alone. Let’s hope they approach this debate in a more responsible and cool-headed manner than the governments that represent all of us, and the entrenched environmental opponents, have so far displayed.