The $273 Billion Question: Enbridge and the Northern Gateway Controversy (1/7)

The Harper government wants to supercharge the
 Canadian economy by allowing over 200 tankers a year through the waters off British Columbia. Detractors of the so-called Northern Gateway insist a single oil spill is all it would take to destroy one of the world’s most diverse natural environments. Is the payoff worth the risk? 

The $273 Billion Question: Enbridge and the Northern Gateway Controversy

Photo: Ilja Herb

I’m at the helm of a sinking ship. Our sailboat, Foxy, is 12.5 metres long, her sails wrapped tight as bagged carpets. She had been motoring up the centre of Seaforth Channel until her diesel engine made a sound like its 37 horses were going cannibal. Ilja Herb, Foxy’s captain, slammed a grease-stained fist into the kill switch and dived below decks, leaving me at the wheel. The sun is shining. To starboard, a tug is overtaking us with a football-field-sized barge in tow, laden with machinery and as oblivious to our predicament as the three yachts bearing down off our port beam —ecotourists back from a day’s visit to Bella Bella, B.C., the town we thought we’d left behind.

Staring into the engine room below me, Herb is absorbing new information, shouting it up in expletive-
tinged terms. The impeller pump has sheared off and burst its hose. I have no clue what an impeller pump is.

It’s been 40 seconds since the motor’s death rattle. Downwind, less than a kilometre away, sits a pyramid of exposed granite reef I hadn’t noticed earlier. 

Ten seconds pass. The Pacific Ocean is gushing into the engine room. The wind nudges us toward the pyramid.

Our goal was simple: to see for ourselves the roadless realm of fjords, inlets, straits, channels, passages and evergreen islands that make up British Columbia’s central coast. In the mid-1990s, environmentalists started calling this the Great Bear Rainforest, but lately Canadians have been hearing it most often referred to as the Northern Gateway—a moniker invented by Enbridge Inc., the Calgary-based oil-and-gas-pipeline conglomerate. Enbridge, whose net annual earnings approach $1 billion, would like to ship 200 million barrels of bitumen a year through the area. The heavy oil would reach the coast via a 1,177-kilometre pipeline running from Bruderheim, Alta., to the port of Kitimat, B.C., where it would be loaded onto tankers bound for China and California.

By Enbridge’s projections, the pipeline would create nearly 3,000 jobs during the three years of construction and, over the project’s estimated lifespan of 30 years, raise Canada’s GDP by $270 billion. Royalties and tax revenue would pour an additional $86 million a year into Canada’s public purse, to be divvied up between federal, provincial and municipal governments.

There’s an additional upside: bragging rights. Canada currently produces more than three million barrels of oil a day, and exports over 70 per cent of it to the United States. The Northern Gateway would not only increase Canada’s export capacity by almost 22 per cent, it would give us access to Asia’s awakening markets—something that Keystone XL, the Alberta–Texas pipeline whose fate is now in Barack Obama’s hands, can’t offer. Small wonder the Harper administration has embraced the $6.5 billion proposal, describing oil exports to Asia as a “national priority” central to their vision of making Canada an “energy superpower,” and suggested it might overrule the National Energy Board in the event that it rejects Enbridge’s application. “We must seize the moment,” Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told 
reporters last April. “These opportunities won’t last forever.”

WATCH IT ON TV : On Friday January 18, Global TV’s news magazine program 16×9 will air a segment about Arno Kopecky and Ilja Herb’s three-month sailing trip up British Columbia’s central coast. 10 p.m. ET/AT, 9 p.m. CT, 8 p.m. AT/MT.

Next: Why scientists and First Nations aren’t buying
Enbridge’s environmental promises

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