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Proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline would be 'safest ever built,' but federal cabinet faces hurdles, Merrifield says

Kevin Hampson

Getting Alberta oil to international markets via the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is in Canadians’ best interest, Yellowhead MP Rob Merrifield said; and the federal government will try to convince skeptical B.C. First Nations groups of that statement before giving final word on the project.

The National Energy Board approved the $6.5 billion pipeline project on Dec. 19 — provided it meets 209 conditions. The pipeline route would run through Lac Ste. Anne and Woodlands counties, crossing farmland on the outskirts of both Mayerthorpe and Whitecourt. The federal cabinet has less than six months to make the final decision.

“There’s a number of hurdles yet,” Merrifield told the Freelancer on Dec. 23. “We’ll see if the 209 conditions are met and how our government will negotiate with First Nations along the route.

“Hopefully these First Nations will realize a benefit from it and see that it’s in their best interest as well.”

The pipeline—which would carry up to 525,000 barrels a day of diluted bitumen to the B.C. coast and ship it by tanker through the Douglas Channel—still faces fierce opposition in B.C. from environmental groups and First Nations groups who raise concerns about the possibility of spills and the amount of greenhouse gas that is generated from the production of oil in Alberta’s oil sands.

“This is about the environmental integrity of the watersheds we all share and we are willing to go to any lengths to defend our watersheds,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, told the CBC after the NEB ruling.

Merrifield said on Dec. 23 that the cabinet would start consulting with First Nations groups within 45 days.

The Northern Gateway Pipeline would be “the safest one that will ever be built” in Canada, Merrifield said. Given the consideration that has already been given to safety in the planning, plus the NEB’s 209 conditions, which address various environmental concerns, the project will raise the bar for environmental standards.

“Without doubt, it rewrites the regs on pipelines,” the MP said, adding that the pipeline would come within half a mile of his family home outside of Whitecourt.

Merrifield suggested that opposition, in both Canada and the U.S., to the development of Alberta’s oil sands is driven largely by politics.

As chairman of the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade, the MP has been promoting another oil sands project to U.S. legislators—TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast. That project has also faced criticism, from the Obama administration as well as many of the president’s core voters.

“It’s rather hypocritical of President Obama to be shaking his finger at the Keystone pipeline when he hasn’t come close to the regulations that Canada has placed on coal fire emissions,” Merrifield said.

“The reality is, we have to double energy output over the next 30 years to sustain growth [and] I don’t think there’s any credible person out there who thinks it’s possible to eliminate fossil fuels from the mix.”

The question, then, is “how do you double energy in an environmentally acceptable way?” Merrifield said.

You can’t, the pipeline’s opponents say, pointing to the rising greenhouse gas emissions (in addition to potential spills) that must result from increasing development of the oil sands. Moreover, environmentalists question the idea that indefinite growth is sustainable or even desirable.

Our society has embraced the mistaken belief that piling up material wealth leads to happiness, said Monika Schaefer, a former Parks Canada warden who ran as a Green Party candidate for Yellowhead in the 2011 federal election. Schaefer spoke with the Freelancer last month.

If oil sands production cannot immediately be stopped, it should at least be slowed down while we put more resources into developing other sources of energy, Schaefer said.

“We’re on the wrong track if we’re continuing to build fossil fuels; the more we’re focusing on that, the less we’re focusing on cleaner sources.”

And while we are still extracting bitumen, we should be refining it in Canada, she added. That way it wouldn’t be moving through pipes, where it could spill (bitumen has proven to be more difficult to clean than conventional oil) and it would create more jobs.

On the issue of greenhouse gas, Merrifield points to the fact that per-barrel GHG emissions in the oil sands have dropped 26 per cent since 1990—a result of heavy investments that oil-sands producers have been making in energy-saving technology.

However, total GHG emissions from the oil industry are increasing as the oil sands take up a larger share of the country’s overall oil production. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an industry group, overall GHG emissions rose 21 per cent between 2008 and 2012.

But even as oil sands production grows, the industry will continue to find better ways of lowering GHG emissions, Merrifield said.

“Tremendous technological advancements are taking place, and that will continue moving forward.”     

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