Head of Northern Gateway surprised by backlash
How about this quote from federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair: “We’re talking about a severe threat to social order, social peace, not only in British Columbia, but across Canada, if Mr. Harper continues to ignore science, continues to ignore First Nations, continues to ignore communities.”
How about this one from federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau: “This prime minister seems to think he can emit a decree from Ottawa and have things happen on the ground. What we need to make sure we’re doing is getting support from the communities affected … not simply rubber-stamping a project from Ottawa.”
Holder emits a sigh in response, and insists Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t rubber-stamp the pipeline project.
“It was an independent review, not a partisan one,” she said of the lengthy public hearings conducted by the federal Joint Review Panel that recommended acceptance of the heavy-oil project and resulted in last Tuesday’s cabinet approval.
“It was the most extensive environmental review in the history of Canada. It was a four-year process, 180 hearing days, 80 experts. The process couldn’t have been more exhaustive and comprehensive.
“And then you have people coming in saying it wasn’t adequate, it was not sufficient. We are a democratic country. We are known to have one of the very best regulatory review processes around the world. And yet that process can be beaten up on as much as it was in the last couple of days.”
I’ve interviewed Janet Holder several times now and she’s usually a lot more upbeat, so I suggest to her that she sounds a little down after such a hard-fought victory.
“Just tired,” she replied, but one of her fiercest opponents sees it a different way.
“They’re not nearly as cocky as you would expect,” said Art Sterritt, head of the staunchly anti-pipeline Coastal First Nations. “This may be the most profound reaction we’ve seen to any project in the history of Canada. But the federal government doesn’t seem to be helping them. Enbridge is out there on their own now. They must be thinking, ‘Holy crap, what have we got ourselves into?’ That’s why they’re down.”
The Conservative government announced its approval of the pipeline in the most low-key manner possible — posting a dryly worded legal notice on a website — and Harper and his cabinet ministers have not yet launched a public sales pitch of the project to Canadians.
Instead, the government emphasized the pipeline was recommended by the science-focused review panel, and it will be up to “the proponent” to meet the panel’s 209 conditions (recommended in December) before the pipeline can be built and operated.
Holder said she was in Vancouver with another Enbridge executive, John Carruthers, when they learned about the approval on Twitter.
“We were in the same room and someone said, ‘It’s out. No additional conditions.’ We sort of looked at one another and said, ‘Oh wow.’ We were pleased, but the next steps in some respects are as complicated as what we’ve been doing to date.”
Did the Enbridge team pop the champagne?
“No,” Holder said. “We worked relatively late that night. We went over to an individual’s house afterwards and had some food and a glass of wine, I admit. But we were also up first thing the next morning and doing more media. We haven’t had the chance to sit back and go, ‘We have accomplished this milestone.’ It has been a whirlwind.
“But it’s not like we get a reprieve now and the next year ahead of us is any easier. In some regards, it’s going to be tougher.”
She said the company will now embark on a massive pre-construction phase that will include satisfying 113 of the conditions and meeting with communities, the provincial government and First Nations to get them on side.
Christy Clark’s B.C. government is currently opposed to the project unless it meets five separate conditions that include addressing the legal rights and economic opportunities of First Nations, “world-leading” safety standards against oil spills and a “fair share” of pipeline profits for B.C.
Holder re-confirmed Enbridge intends to meet all the conditions, though she said the company is still waiting for more information from the province, including what a “fair share” of the profits would be.
“We haven’t got an idea at this time what that’s going to look like,” she said. “I suspect the B.C. government probably has some ideas, but that hasn’t been shared with us.”
She said one of the main priorities is to win the confidence of B.C. First Nations, many of which are fiercely opposed to the project and have launched lawsuits against it.
“We are going to engage with all the First Nations impacted by this project to demonstrate there is value to them, as well as to us, in working with us. Over the last three weeks alone, we have over 25 aboriginal businesses that are in the queue for pre-approval for work during construction.”
But Sterritt chuckles at the claim.
“There are lots of people around with a truck or a backhoe who would like to get a job and want to be first in line,” the First Nations leader said. “But they’re not the people holding the social licence that First Nations are requiring. We want safety. We want a guarantee they can clean up an oil spill and that’s not what they’re offering.”
The environmental movement, meanwhile, is gearing up for the biggest fight B.C. has ever seen, warning the project is fraught with risk of a pipeline rupture or super-tanker accident.
“Enbridge cannot be trusted to build and operate a pipeline that exposes some of our most precious watersheds and ecosystems to the risk of a catastrophic oil spill,” said Nikki Skuce of Forest Ethics Advocacy, one of many critics predicting the pipeline will never be built.
But Holder, sounding more upbeat as she talks about the future, predicted the opposite.
“The silent majority is starting to speak out,” she said. “As people start to see things unfold, as we meet all our conditions, they will say, ‘Oh, yeah. I have more confidence now. I’m willing to put my hand up and say this should happen, provided it’s done right.’ It’s the environment first, no question.”
When will construction begin? Holder said the company expects to defeat its opponents in court, satisfy all pre-construction conditions, and get shovels in the ground by the fall of 2015.
“That’s our plan,” she said. “We believe we can get there.”
Many others have their doubts.