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Moving oil across B.C. to thirsty foreign markets

Last week, the House of Commons passed a non-binding motion that calls for a legislative ban on all tanker traffic off British Columbia’s ecologically sensitive north coast. All Conservatives MP’s voted against the motion, but have yet to articulate a clear position – one way or another - on tanker traffic there. The catalyst is the proposed Enbridge pipeline project. It would stretch more than 1,000-kilometres from the oil sands near Edmonton to the northwestern B.C. coastal town of Kitimat, before crude would be loaded onto tankers for export across the ocean.

Proponents of the pipeline make a persuasive case. Without tankers being allowed on the North Coast there is no pipeline. No pipeline, no way to take Alberta’s oil to thirsty Asian markets. And with that, tens of billions of lost investment and lost jobs for Canada. Among the many safeguards proponents appropriately highlight is Canada’s stringent regulatory and oversight regime. They also correctly point to the tremendous professionalism, skill, and unblemished record of Canadian shipping operators and tugboat firms and captains.

 On the other side of this argument is an equally compelling case. Leaders of Coastal First Nations are resolute in their opposition to tanker traffic. Chief Art Sterritt advances the notion that there may not be an accident and spill for thirty years - but statistically, we know there will be one. And that’s all it takes to jeopardize the land, people and wildlife of the region for generations to come. Aboriginal communities along the North Coast have made clear that they will never allow that risk to be taken, notwithstanding assurances by Enbridge and others or the outcome of the findings of the regulatory review process underway. For Coastal First Nations, this isn’t about money. It's all about the land and the environment. Their sentiments are sincere and heartfelt and no one should doubt the steadfastness of their resolve.

The crux of the issue is that a ban on tanker traffic would kill the pipeline. Because of that, a profoundly divisive debate is taking shape. It is one where business is pitted against environmentalists, where Aboriginal people are in conflict with non-Aboriginal communities, and where tensions might be inflamed between Alberta and British Columbia.

We are at an impasse. Positions are entrenched and hardening and the stakes are substantial. Yet, on an issue of significance to Canada’s national interest, our political leaders have gone silent. Instead, we are witnessing a public relations offensive by two staunchly opposing sides. This is far from constructive. In the past several years, regional factionalism has intensified at a disturbing rate in Canada. We’ve witnessed skirmishes between Newfoundland and Quebec over hydro electricity; cleavages with Ottawa on a national securities regulator; and the unprecedented spectacle of premiers of various provinces at the climate change talks in Copenhagen attacking our national government on foreign soil. We certainly don’t need another futile “debate” that tears at the fabric of the country while Ottawa abdicates its responsibility and sits passively on the sidelines.

 The country has also not come to terms with the debilitating dependence that Aboriginal people suffer from at the hands of the arcane Indian Act. Until we deal with this incredibly difficult problem, progress will remain elusive on a multitude of fronts, particularly developing the economies of BC’s heartland communities. 

To have an informed discussion about the options for our future – which includes strengthening Canada’s economic and social union and diversifying our overwhelming economic dependence on the United States - our mental model must change.

 First, a pipeline company should not be leading this discussion. In fairness to Enbridge, what choice did they have? They’ve simply filled a gaping hole in a leadership vacuum.  If anything, they and others should be applauded for having the foresight to open up an urgently needed discussion on a national energy strategy for Canada for the 21st century.

 Worldwide demand and consumption of fossil fuels will continue to be strong for the foreseeable future. That is clear evidence that developing countries have been and remain on a strong growth path. For example, demand for energy in the next 25 years is forecasted to increase over 35%. The Pacific Rim and India will be among the largest consumers. They also need potash, coal, iron ore, timber, natural gas, wheat, as well as oil. Canada should be a major supplier – not only to the United States - but to world markets. It is vital to Canada’s strategic and economic interest that our national government facilitates that activity. 

 So, the question we should be asking ourselves is how do we get those needed products – which includes product from Alberta’s oil sands - to a global market that wants and needs them, and how can that be done in an environmentally safe and sustainable fashion? The other key question I believe we should ask ourselves is this: In light of that demand, can we tie that indisputable fact to a much broader economic development agenda for Western Canada?  If we frame the question in that way, it opens up an entirely different set of possibilities that we should explore.

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