Energy Wars: The Harper government and the push to make Canada a global petro-power

For Canadians, the fate of the Northern Gateway pipeline looms as a crossroads in a national drama that could determine Canada’s role as an energy-rich nation in a world trying to balance rising power demands with the dangers of climate change.

Within weeks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make a decision that could plunge the federal Conservatives into the fiercest environmental clash ever seen in Canada.

The cabinet is about to deliver a yes-or-no verdict on the hotly-contested plan to pipe 500,000 barrels a day of oilsands-derived crude from Alberta through the Rockies to the British Columbia coast for export on oil tankers.

The decision on the proposed $6.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline looms as one of the most momentous in eight years of power for Harper, whose government has given cabinet the final say on whether such projects should go ahead.

For Canadians, the fate of the pipeline looms as a crossroads in a national drama that could determine Canada’s role as an energy-rich nation in a world trying to balance rising power demands with the dangers of climate change.

Opponents of the Northern Gateway are worried about environmental damage from the proposed 1,172-kilometre pipeline, which passes through some of the most prized wilderness lands in Canada and affects 45 First Nations communities along its route. And many environmentalists are against oilsands pipelines, which they see as enabling increased greenhouse gas emissions by expanding oilsands production.

But even before regulatory hearings on the proposed Gateway pipeline began in early 2012, the government made no secret of its belief that building it was in Canada’s national interest. Opponents were tarred as foreign-financed radicals trying to “hijack” the approval process and scupper a project of benefit to Canada’s economy.

Two years later, however, opposition in British Columbia to Gateway — which would for the first time bring oil tankers to the pristine northern B.C. coast — has gathered such potent political force that some insiders expect the Harper government to approve the pipeline — but only if certain conditions are met. The added conditions might have the effect of putting off construction until after the expected 2015 federal election, long enough to protect Conservative seats in B.C., observers speculate.

“The public opposition here is just incredible, and add to that a lot of First Nations legal standing in the North and you have quite a recipe for a difficult path if you want to force this thing through,” said Hannah McKinnon, national program manager for Environmental Defence in B.C.

Those fighting against more oil pipelines on the West Coast point to the so-called War in the Woods, where 800 people were arrested in 1993 in a successful campaign to prevent clear-cut logging in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. That, environmentalists say, would only be a preview of the civil disobedience Enbridge Inc. would face if it tries to build Gateway.

Of those opposed to the planned pipeline to the northern B.C. coast, McKinnon says, “They are willing to go to great lengths, and I mean, anyone who has visited any of that pipeline route plus the tanker route that is being proposed, they don’t need to be convinced that that is a recipe for disaster.”

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