Freshwater Politics and the Gateway Project

To mark the recent publication of Freshwater Politics in Canada, author Peter Clancy provides a brief overview of the freshwater dimensions of the controversial Northern Gateway project, as well as its many political dimensions. For more on this, or on related issues such as fracking, salmon conservation, Aboriginal water interests, freshwater governance, etc., grab a copy of his brand new book!

The Northern Gateway project is one of the most significant energy ventures in Canada today. It proposes a 36 inch oil pipeline to convey diluted bitumen (heavy synthetic oil) from the Fort McMurray region to Kitimat BC. There it will be loaded onto tankers for Asian markets. A parallel 20 inch line will carry imported natural gas condensates, required in the manufacturing process, in the opposite direction. About 45 percent of the 1,177 km corridor is in Alberta with the balance in British Columbia.

Freshwater politics is only part of the controversy here but it is a big part. More than one thousand rivers and streams must be crossed. While all watercourses are sensitive, the proposed Gateway route crosses five major Canadian watersheds. The Skeena and the Fraser drain to the Pacific, the Peace and the Athabasca flow northerly to the Arctic Ocean and the North Saskatchewan River flows easterly to Hudson’s Bay. These watersheds and sub-watersheds enclose a plethora of biological and social communities and each generates a variety of political concerns.

Once upon a time in Canada, pipeline promoters worried principally about construction rights of way and financial backing. Big trunk pipelines were a post-1945 phenomenon with the Interprovincial Pipeline taking Alberta crude to Sarnia and the Trans-Canada Pipeline moving Alberta natural gas to southern Ontario. Today, land rights and financing are still key business parameters but they are joined by a complex set of political—regulatory and distributive—issues, including environmental impacts during the construction phase, operational safety over the life of the line, and pollution protection in the event of breakdowns.

Political conflict is widespread. Several forces ensure this. In part it is because today we know and care far more about the bio-physical environment that pipelines traverse. In part it stems from the fact that the earlier generation of pipelines was dominated by organized interests at the source (producers) and at the terminus (consumers). Interests along the transit route were far less acknowledged. Today the interested public is wider—including First Nations, watershed activists, climate campaigners, and host governments. In addition, regulatory mandates are broader and deeper. In short our governing expectations have been transformed. There is far greater awareness and debate over the apportioning of risks and apportioning of benefits.

In considering the environmental risks associated with Northern Gateway, the 2010 Michigan case is instructive. That July, a forty-year-old pipe ruptured near Battle Creek. In the eighteen hours between the first automated signal warning and the formal report of the breach, up to one million US gallons of oil spilled into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The downstream flow affected a 25 mile stretch of the main river channel. With bitumen, the heavier compounds sink in water after a spill while the lighter ones float and evaporate. The pipeline owner, Enbridge Corp, spent more than two years dealing with the damages in the most expensive pipeline cleanup on record. The reasons for the spill—metal fatigue and faulty exterior lining—occurred in a relatively mature system but the issues it raises point to the future of Gateway as well. And remember the thousand-plus streams that the Gateway line will cross.

Freshwater Politics in CanadaAnother striking feature of pipeline politics today is the range of state channels that shape decisions. For example, a project of this scale requires environmental licenses from both federal and provincial authorities. A joint regulatory panel was struck to streamline some of these legal requirements, and policy recommendations were ultimately conveyed to ministers for final decision. The Gateway panel included several hundred conditions as part of its ultimate recommendation for approval and a close analysis of those panel conditions, along with the ultimate ministerial versions, is necessary to capture the proposed apportioning of risks and benefits.

Another critical channel of state authority is the courts. In vast stretches of proposed pipeline route, title to land is in dispute. First Nations that have never signed treaties or other land transfer agreements claim continuing Aboriginal rights to tribal territory. Without such guarantees from state authorities, it can be expected that a variety of legal injunctions can be expected to affect the project.

In sum, the Northern Gateway project casts freshwater politics in sharp relief. In this, it joins a far wider set of agricultural, industrial, and municipal projects in regions across Canada.

Peter Clancy is Professor of Political Science and an associate with Interdisciplinary Studies in Aquatic Resources (ISAR) at St. Francis Xavier University. He is the author of Offshore Petroleum Politics: Regulation and Risk in the Scotian Basin (2011) as well as Micropolitics and Canadian Business: Paper, Steel, and the Airlines (2004), and, with Anders Sandberg, Against the Grain: Foresters and Politics in Nova Scotia (2000).

Note: If you are an instructor and would like to consider adding Freshwater Politics in Canada to the required reading list for an upcoming course, please email to request an examination copy.

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