As a year-end decision looms from the Canadian National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel (JRP) on the massive Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline project, I’m sent back to that sinking feeling when energy company Enbridge first submitted its application in May 2011. It became real then that our wild salmon rivers and coast were now at an all-time risk.
ForestEthics Advocacy decided to jump in with both feet. We registered as intervenors to bring some needed scrutiny and questions to Enbridge’s proposal. We encouraged public participation in an unprecedented project that would introduce over 200 tar sands oil tankers to the northwest coast.
After sifting through the volumes of information, it became immediately clear that Enbridge was submitting more of a plan for a plan, than an actual plan. The gaps in information and details were frightening, and only seemed to widen as the review process got underway.
The day before the hearings began on Enbridge’s pipeline and tanker project in January 2012, the federal government came out with an open letter trying to silence dissent and calling those opposed to the project “radical.” The letter backfired, and thousands of concerned citizens raised their voices through oral testimony and written comment, overwhelmingly in opposition to the project.
Hearings began with a bang on the Haisla First Nation’s territory in Kitamaat Village, where elder Sammy Robinson said that it felt as though they were looking down a two-barreled shotgun, given the threat felt his nation felt from tar sands pipelines and tankers. A powerful image to start compelling oral testimonies made mostly by First Nations over the first three months.
Another memorable moment was when Lake Babine Hereditary Chief, Frank Alec, held out a salmon in Burns Lake and said, "We cannot live without this sacred animal, our fish, the salmon...This is who we are”—a statement that rung true across British Columbia’s northwest, where protecting wild salmon unifies us.
Nearly 1,500 people took the time to make oral statements against the project before the three-member panel.
For the most part, people’s presentations were personal and moving. These community hearings captured an oral history about sense of place and rootedness in British Columbia—its people, its beauty, its waters. As one participant stated in my northwestern town of Smithers, despite the process losing legitimacy part way through, because of the Conservative government’s regulatory changes, the hearings provided an outlet for people to speak and show a groundswell of support for our environment and community, “like impassioned community theatre.”
Grown men and women were regularly brought to tears as our neighbours and friends made compelling arguments to the panel.
The people who spoke up included the daughter of one of the founders of the Reform Party, the son of an oil executive born in Fort MacMurray, the former CEO of BC Hydro, an ex-Conservative Party of Canada riding president, a former tar sands scientist, an oil spill cleanup expert, a former World Bank economist, business owners, tourism operators, fishers, biologists, grandmothers, fathers, daughters...a strong diversity of backgrounds and voices all opposed to Enbridge’s high-risk tar sands project.
In his opening statement to the panel as the technical hearings began in Edmonton, Alberta in September 2012, Northern Gateway president John Carruthers stated the company had taken note of the nature and extent of public concerns that had been expressed, particularly in British Columbia. Mr. Carruthers said that Northern Gateway would embrace consultation and conversation as an enduring component of the project’s construction and operation.
In contrast, Northern Gateway, in their closing arguments in 2013, dismissed the public’s comments on the project as having “inflated perceptions of risk” and being based on “misconceptions, misunderstandings, myths and disinformation.” In fact, the proponent requested that the “statements of a scientific or technical nature” in oral statements and within over 9,000 letters of comment “should be given no weight.” For all those who took the time to participate in the process and research information, Northern Gateway wanted you dismissed.
This attitude from Enbridge—from wanting to dismiss opposition voices, to deleting islands along the tanker route in PR videos, from claiming oil spills are easy to clean up to refusing to admit that tar sands sink, from promising not to go through with a project opposed by others to ignoring “no” by over 160 First Nations—is exactly why the company has no social licence to operate.
After 18 months of hearings full of vague responses from Enbridge and compelling evidence from intervenors, Enbridge also failed to prove that its project is needed or that they have the competence to build it safely.
At the end of the technical hearings, ForestEthics Advocacy with EcoJustice compiled over 250 commitments the company made to do upon project approval. These commitments range from oil spill response plans, to geo-hazard studies along the route and they represent huge gaps in submitted evidence. The Province of BC had little choice but to come out rejecting the project due to inadequate evidence and a “trust me” attitude by Northern Gateway.
We’ve summarized some of findings from the hearings in a new report, Case Closed: Enbridge failed to prove Northern Gateway pipelines in national interest. Upon closer review of the evidence, it’s undeniable that the JRP should reject this project.
Enbridge and its colleagues lobbied the federal government hard and won its support, as well as changes made to almost every piece of environmental legislation to make it easier to build pipelines. But they aimed their shotgun across BC and missed their mark. As the three-member panel prepares to make their recommendation to the Harper government, let’s hope that they don’t dismiss the resounding voices of opposition. Let’s hope they recognize that Northern Gateway is not in BC’s interest, nor the nation’s. As opposition to tar sands pipelines and tankers rises, this project is sure to sink.