The recently-approved Northern Gateway Pipeline brings concerns for the inland environment, First Nations land rights and ocean environment. Proponents say the federal government should not change the rules under which the approval has been given.


The recently-approved Northern Gateway Pipeline brings concerns for the inland environment, First Nations land rights and ocean environment. Proponents say the federal government should not change the rules under which the approval has been given.

July 7, 2014

When the Harper Conservative government approved the Northern Gateway pipeline June 17, it launched a debate likely to figure prominently in the 2015 election.

The debate will involve environmental concerns, aboriginal rights and the health of Canada's resource-based economy.

The government decision marked the acceptance of the National Energy Board's (NEB) conditional approval of the pipeline that would bring bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to the British Columbia coast so it can be shipped to world markets.

After a 10-year study and extensive consultations, the regulatory body imposed 209 conditions the Enbridge pipeline must meet.

Both the New Democrats and the Liberals opposed the move vigorously in the House of Commons, as do an array of aboriginal and environmental groups.

Although Canada's Catholic bishops have not commented on the recent decision, previous statements from some bishops have raised concerns about the oilsands' rapid development.

Joe Gunn, executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, pointed out that in 2009 then-St. Paul Bishop Luc Bouchard had written "the present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oilsands cannot be morally justified."

Soon after, Mackenzie-Fort Smith Bishop Murray Chatlain joined "the call for the suspension of rapid growth of the tarsands in Alberta." (Bouchard is now bishop of Trois-Rivières bishop; Chatlain is archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas.)

"Building the Northern Gateway pipeline – designed to expand exports of bitumen – runs counter to the moral calls of these leaders," Gunn said in an email. "Christians must examine our consciences, lifestyles and public policies so that we advocate for and live into a more benign energy-sourced future."

Gunn pointed out industry proposals call for a tripling in bitumen production from the oilsands by 2030.

"This expansive scenario means that Canada will never be able to achieve our promised greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets," he said. All pipeline projects need to be examined in light of these commitments.

CPJ has also stood for aboriginal rights, as have the bishops and other Canadian Church leaders, in calling for a "new covenant" with Canada's aboriginal peoples, Gunn said.

"The federal government decision to proceed with the pipeline must only happen when Canada fulfills its commitment to free, prior and informed consent with the First Nations who inhabit the pipeline route."

In 2013, the CCCB's Commission for Justice and Peace released a theological reflection on care for the environment.

The reflection did not specifically mention the oilsands, but did call for advanced societies to lower domestic energy consumption as well as urging "a worldwide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them."

Ken Coates, director of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan, said people tend to see the concerns of environmental groups and aboriginal groups as the same.

"The position of the bishops is consistent with a lot of folks who want to see the First Nations supported," he said. If First Nations' concerns are "brought onside and their environmental concerns have been addressed," there is likely going to be "a greater comfort" with the project.

Some environmental groups, however, oppose development altogether.

"There are people who see the oilsands as being a talisman for everything wrong with our carbon-based society," Coates said. They don't want the pipeline to go through and they don't want the oilsands, because it's part of the struggle against climate change.

These same people do not seem to focus on oil production in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Nigeria with the same vehemence, he said.


"Those thinking of closing down the oilsands better have a model in mind on how Canada maintains its quality of life," Coates continued. He asked if Canadians could accept a 20 to 40 per cent reduction in the standard of living.

Brian Dijkema, work and economics program director for Cardus, a conservative think tank, said Canada has a "well-established process" for examining projects. The NEB is the regulatory body for determining whether projects should be approved.

If that process is undermined, Canada also risks undermining the rule of law, he warned. The NEB is part of the process set up by the government with objective criteria for examining projects.

"If we can't live with that, then how are we going to make those decisions?" he asked. "One of Canada's greatest competitive advantages in the global economy is the stability of our regulatory environment."


Companies like Enbridge and others are willing to pay higher labour and environmental costs because they know that if they invest millions of dollars, they "are going to get a return without the government flipping the switch."

Canada's regulations set forth the rules for play and companies count on those rules, he said. "If we change the rules, it makes Canada a less attractive place to invest."

Coates maintained the "oilsands of 2014 are not the ones of the 1980s."

While the support of First Nations is key to the project, Coates pointed out proponents of the pipeline say Canada is not getting the full value for the product by being forced to take the lower North American price. They warn Canada is missing an opportunity to get a foothold in the Chinese market for energy and this opportunity may only have a limited window.

Like Coates, Dijkema emphasized the federal government's responsibility to negotiate with First Nations.