Panel gives pipeline the green light

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A National Energy Board Joint Review Panel, put in charge of deciding the fate of the proposed $7.9 billion (formerly estimated at $6.5 billion) Northern Gateway pipeline, has given the project the thumbs up.

On Thursday, Dec. 19, the Panel posted their approval of the pipelines, which will carry bitumen (distilled crude oil) from Alberta’s oilsands to tankers on the coast of British Columbia, with 209 conditions attached.

“After weighing all of the oral and written evidence, the Panel found that Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project than without it,” the Panel said in a statement. The decision came following months of public hearings, in which the Joint Review Panel heard submissions from more than 1,450 participants in 21 communities.

Proponents of the project have argued that the proposed pipeline is critical for the province of Alberta to get its oil to emerging markets in Asia, a point with which the Panel agreed.

As reported in the Huffington Post, the panel stated, “We have taken the view that opening Pacific Basin markets is important to the Canadian economy and society.”

If constructed, the pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the West Coast.

In a statement, Alberta Energy Minister Diana McQueen called the panel’s decision “an important step” towards establishing Canada “as a true global energy superpower.”

The proposal has long been objected to by various environmental and First Nations groups concerned for the protection of British Columbian land, and the ever-present danger accompanying all pipeline: spills.

Although the Panel found a large spill to be unlikely, they continued on to say, “We further found that a large spill would initially have significant adverse environmental effects on ecosystems and we accepted the scientific evidence that indicates that the environment would ultimately recover and return to a functioning ecosystem similar to that existing prior to the spill.”

“The panel found that . . . Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project than without it.” 

– National Energy Board Joint Review Panel

One of the conditions of the proposal’s acceptance requires Enbridge to maintain $950 million in liability coverage, as well as “unfettered access” to $100 million within 10 business days of a large spill from any component of the project. The current cost estimate of a major oil spill is between $5 to $22 billion.

Despite these stipulations, major concerns have come up during the Panel’s review that Enbridge has massively underestimated the risk of oil spills associated with the project, and has not shown that they will effectively be able to respond to oil spills if they occur.

A study led by Tom Gunton, SFU director of Resource and Environmental Planning, found that there is a “95 to 99 per cent chance of a tanker oil spill from the Northern Gateway Project, over the operating life of the project.” Gunton explained in a previous interview with The Peak that a tanker spill on the coast would have a much greater impact on the surrounding environment than a pipeline spill.

One of the central critiques of the Northern Gateway proposal was the actual product that would flow through the pipeline, which is oilsands crude. However, the review panel did not agree with arguments that stated that oilsands crude is more corrosive and abrasive than conventional crude.

The BC provincial government had previously set five conditions for the pipeline project, and BC Environment Minister Mary Polak stated that the Panel’s report “means they are part-way to getting the first condition,” explaining that the project needs to pass a federal environmental assessment.

Al Monaco, CEO of Enbridge, was pleased with the decision, but recognized the work still to be done if the pipeline is to become a reality, according to the Huffington Post.

“The decision today comes down to confirming that we have a sound project from a commercial, technical and safety and environmental point of view. That’s all good, and it’s all subject to the conditions and we are proud of that . . . but we are not celebrating,” Monaco stated.

He continued, “We know more work needs to be done with some Aboriginal communities. Over the last year, I can assure you we’ve been listening very carefully to both British Columbians and aboriginal groups to address concerns.”

The final decision now lies with the federal government, which has 180 days, approximately six months, to decide whether to give the project final approval.