Northern Gateway would close doors on Canada's future

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July 7, 2014

Five years ago Bishop Luc Bouchard, then the bishop of St. Paul, began his landmark pastoral statement, The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oilsands, with these words: "Our wasteful consumerist lifestyle, combined with political and industrial short-sightedness and neglect, are damaging our air, land, and water. Personal, social and political change will be necessary to meet this national challenge."

Those words are ever-more relevant with the federal government's approval of the Northern Gateway Pipeline. The pipeline will exacerbate the problems Bouchard saw with the rapid expansion of the oilsands and add several others.

As major environmental threats, Bouchard cited the destruction of the boreal forest ecosystem, potential damage to the Athabasca River watershed, the heavy consumption of natural gas in producing bitumen and the tailing ponds created by oilsands development. As well, the oilsands' enormous amount of carbon dioxide production poses a threat to global warming. Further, the oilsands threaten the health and lifestyle of First Nations and Metis people downstream.

Said Bouchard: "I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca Oilsands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. The proposed future development of the oilsands constitutes a serious moral problem."

Today, Canada still has no plan for orderly oilsands development or for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Short-term economic gain takes priority over creating an economy and environment that will sustain our grandchildren.

The Northern Gateway would increase the problems cited by Bouchard by promoting oilsands expansion and would create new concerns along the pipeline route and the route of bitumen transportation to overseas markets.

The pipeline will cross 785 rivers and streams, including many crucial to fish-bearing habitat, as well as traversing rain forests. At Kitimat, the bitumen would be transferred into supertankers (roughly 220 a year), which would begin their journey by negotiating 185 kms of inner coastal waters which pose many navigational challenges.

The 1,200-km pipeline route runs through remote and rugged territory where cleaning up a spill of acidic and corrosive diluted bitumen would be a massive undertaking. A spill in ocean waters would be unlike that of conventional crude as the bitumen would sink to the ocean floor.

Some maintain Canada's economy would suffer severe hardship if we don't have rapid oilsands industry expansion and overseas exports of bitumen. This is narrow, self-serving thinking that fails to seek the long-term best interests of Canada and the world.

What we do need is an enforced plan for gradual oilsands development, a commitment to refine bitumen into crude in Alberta, serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, environmental regulations that are enforced, and protection of aboriginal rights. To date, governments have abdicated their responsibilities in these areas. People in Canada and around the world deserve better.