Opinions remain deeply divided over the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal despite a National Energy Board conditional recommendation that it should proceed.
Environmental interests are disappointed but emboldened in their opposition while business interests, with some exceptions, are buoyed by the prospect of a major boost to the B.C. economy.
If only it were that simple.
“This will be a watershed moment in B.C. just to see the reality of pushing something through when there’s so much opposition,” said Derek Cook, a TRU political scientist.
He expects a big fight ahead with senior governments and companies going nose to nose with First Nations and others who oppose an acceleration of oil sands development due to carbon-induced climate change.
With its location on the grid of the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Kamloops will be part of that debate, he said. There are parallels with the Ajax mine proposal.
“It’s going to be very polarizing.”
MP Cathy McLeod said ultimate decision-making authority rests with the federal cabinet in Ottawa, but cabinet approval won’t be based solely on the joint panel recommendation.
“Cabinet has 180 days make a decision,” she said after learning of the recommendation on Thursday. “They have a report from First Nations, they have an expert report on tanker safety. They need to be looking at all of these very carefully and having a conversation with First Nations,” she added, underscoring the importance of the latter.
While the issue is a divisive one, the project must meet acceptable standards before it gets a federal green light, McLeod stressed.
“I think we certainly have people very pro and people who are very concerned,” she said. “Ultimately it’s going to be safe for Canadians and safe for the environment if it’s going to be approved.”
Environmental groups responded with unanimous condemnation, saying the panel report ignores most submissions made at hearings over the past two years.
“This report’s a whitewash,” said Jim Cooperman, a Shuswap environmentalist. “How can they say in good conscience that this should proceed when everybody affected by it is opposed?”
He said 90 per cent of written submissions and 96 per cent of oral submissions to the panel were in opposition to the proposal.
“What’s concerning me is they’re trying to keep secret the percentage of those opposed in oral and written submissions. I think the report lacks credibility. I think the authors lack credibility for not paying attention to the public.”
Media should stop referring to Northern Gateway as an oil pipeline since it will ship diluted bitumen, which is more difficult to clean up if a spill occurs, he said. The Enbridge spill in Michigan serves as an example, he added.
Bob Dieno, president of the Kamloops Chamber of Commerce, said the B.C. chamber has endorsed the proposal since Day One.
“We’ve kind of let the B.C. chamber run on this one,” he said. “We’ve supported it as we all know it’s good for business and it’s good for B.C.”
B.C. chamber president John Winter said the decision is great news for B.C. and expressed confidence in the comprehensiveness of the review. It also sends a message to investors, he added.
“This decision sends that message that, while our standards are rigorous, we’re open for business,” Winter said.
The B.C. chamber conducted its own poll recently and found 57 per cent support among B.C. residents on the condition that the joint review panel recommended it. If the project meets B.C. government’s five conditions, support increased to 63 per cent.
Len Marchand Sr., a former federal environment minister and the country’s first Aboriginal cabinet member, remains steadfastly opposed to the project.
“It should not go ahead,” he reiterated. “It’s just the environmental danger of those tankers going where they have to travel.”
He’s not convinced that any number of safeguards could avoid those risks.
First Nations in the North are heavily reliant on the salmon resource for their diet and therefore cannot accept a project that might threaten it, he added. Every family has a freezer full of fish to get them through the winter.
“Without that, they would have it pretty tough.”
In the face of growing political pressure internationally to take effective action against climate change, the only alternative to the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects would be to leave oil sand in the ground until technology enables its safe development, Cook said.