Was the rationale behind Northern Gateway’s rejection justified? Where do we go from here?

This is the first in a series of articles about pipeline development in Canada, written by graduates of the Masters of Earth and Energy Resources Leadership, Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering at Queen’s University in summer 2018.

The series will highlight the exceptionally dynamic social, political and environmental circumstances that now commonly accompany pipeline proposals in Canada, and seek to help provide the layman with the facts that they need to arrive at their own conclusions.


Also in this series:


The lead up to a decision on the Northern Gateway Pipeline project ensured that it would be controversial.

In the end, the federal government decided that it was in its best interest to approve the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion and the replacement of Enbridge Line 3 instead. Northern Gateway became the unfortunate casualty of a government that wanted to appear balanced in terms of resource development, Aboriginal relations, and its commitment to addressing climate change.

In effect, this decision saw the government side with a small group of peaceful protestors, and a minority of the Aboriginal communities that were impacted by the project.

This raises an important question on whether or not one or two Aboriginal communities that are opposed to a project like this should be allowed to impose their will on an otherwise unified group of Aboriginal communities supporting it.

At a complicated time in Canadian history, with reconciliation underway, Aboriginal consensus on a project the likes of Northern Gateway is probably not achievable. However, in this case, a strong majority of the indigenous groups impacted by the project proposal were supportive of Northern Gateway, and it was in the best interest of the entire region to have it built.


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The Northern Gateway project proposal meandered through one of the most rigorous regulatory reviews in Canadian history. This review included 180 hearing days, 175,000 pages of evidence, 9,400 letters, 1,179 oral presentations, 389 witnesses, and 60 interveners (NEB, 2013b).

A three-member panel with relevant expertise evaluated all of the material that was presented, and they determined that the project, if constructed, would be in the public interest of Canada.

Unfortunately, the Joint Review Panel can only provide a recommendation. Final decision rests with the federal government. This raises the issue of authority. Should a federal cabinet, with less knowledge and expertise, have the right to vote against a recommendation from a panel of experts that has conducted an extensive review? It would be wise to move away from this structure in order to prevent political interference of important infrastructure decisions such as Northern Gateway.

The federal government justified its rejection of Northern Gateway in November 2016 by stating that the project was not in the best interest of locally affected indigenous communities, the environment of the Great Bear Rainforest, and the Douglas Channel.

As the full paper, The Enbridge Northern Gateway Project: Grand Vision, Missed Opportunity demonstrates, Enbridge has an excellent track record of transporting crude by pipeline. In terms of tanker safety, we are living in an era of unprecedented safety performance where tanker incidents are extremely rare. For example, the Westridge Terminal in Vancouver is much narrower than the Douglas Channel near Kitimat, yet it has never recorded a tanker incident.

Given these data, there is a strong likelihood that Northern Gateway would operate incident free; and therefore, the government’s environmental position does not seem justifiable. On the issue of Indigenous communities, the Federal Court of Appeal chastised Ottawa for failure in its duty to consult. Although the court decision was not unanimous, it does highlight the fact that the interests of some of the communities may have been overlooked.

If energy infrastructure companies like Enbridge decide to return to Canada to pursue greenfield infrastructure opportunities, they should approach any project proposal in partnership with affected Aboriginal communities.

In the past, Aboriginals have been treated as tokens; today they deserve to be treated as equals. Partnering on infrastructure projects presents strategic benefits to both companies and communities. Companies can look forward to faster regulatory reviews periods as community alignment and duty to consult issues can be avoided, while communities will have the opportunity to provide valuable input on the project, and participate in building a robust and sustainable local economy.

Enbridge and its partners proposed one of the most technologically advanced pipelines ever conceived. The company provided more than adequate mitigation responses to nearly every concern brought up during the regulatory review process.

Although Northern Gateway was deemed to be in the public interest of Canadians, political intervention prevented an amazing vision from becoming reality. This is a blow to an industry that is held to the highest standards on earth, and when Canada fails to get its resources to other markets, its values lose on the global scale.

As global oil demand slowly surpasses 100 million barrels per day, the result is more supply from producers with far poorer corruption, social and environmental track records.

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