It's back. and in this year of classic horror show revivals, it's all too fitting. The mega-pipeline destined to rip through pristine lands in the Mackenzie Valley, funnelling natural gas to the energy-hungry south, might have been canned in the mid-70s for trampling native rights and the northern landscape, but somewhere along the line the much maligned project has been quietly resuscitated.
This time around, native groups aren't so much fighting the massive corporate tear-up of their traditional lands as partnering up with pipeline companies for their slice of the pie. Some would call it an empowering and historic move. But activists warn that aboriginal entrepreneurs have bought into a dirty deal. Far from supplying homes with a new source of "clean" fossil fuel, the gas looks like its slated to bolster the operations of the American and Canadian oil industry.
Enough heavy oil is buried in Alberta's tar sands to pave a four-lane highway to the moon, but the expansion of the notoriously polluting operation needs one thing to deliver on that promise: an ample supply of natural gas. Yet if the feds allow the Mackenzie project to fuel another oil expansion, many say we can kiss our Kyoto targets goodbye. And then there's the NAFTA issue. Trade experts warn that once we turn the taps on and increase gas and/or oil exports, there's no turning them off - thanks to the pact's energy clause. Considering all the weighty implications, why are the feds pushing the pipeline through instead of sparing us this scary and costly sequel? ***
To most Canadians, the Mackenzie pipeline disappeared with bell-bottoms and disco. The Berger Inquiry, set up to examine the pipeline's impact on those living in its path, called for a 10-year moratorium on its development and insisted land claims be settled with local native groups before anyone considered laying the pipeline in the future. Thirty years later, things have certainly changed. Three of the four First Nations communities concerned have settled their claims, and many of the young radicals who fought the project then are now part of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group (APG) that forged a lucrative 30 per cent partnership with the oil companies in charge of the project.
What else is new? Oh yeah, Canada has nearly run out of conventional oil, but thankfully, extracting it from our tar sands secures our title to the second-biggest oil reserve outside Saudi Arabia. The catch is, you need tremendous amounts of energy to extract the stuff (almost as much as it takes to produce it), and the energy source of choice to date is - you guessed it - natural gas.
Pipeline owners are denying the tar sands link, saying it's unrealistic to sell the gas to only one group when there's a whole market out there hungry for their product. "There's lots of conjecture about that, and it's not accurate," says Hart Searle, spokesperson for the Mackenzie Gas Project, which represents Imperial, Shell Canada, ExxonMobile, ConocoPhillips and the APG. "We haven't made any determination about where our share would go," says Searle, adding, "How we can we track a molecule of gas anyway?"
Activists disagree. They say there's a troubling overlap in ownership between the pipeline and the tar sands, not to mention info leaks detailing plans to connect the southern pipeline to oil sands capital Fort McMurray.
"The evidence we have is that the tar sands will take all the gas the Mackenzie Project can produce," says Sierra Club of Canada's Stephen Hazel. "They don't have nearly enough natural gas right now to fuel the expansion of the tar sands they're thinking about."
No big deal, maybe, if the tar sands extraction and refining process didn't produce two and a half times more greenhouse gases than regular oil. And if that extraction expands at the rate trumpeted by politicians, Hazel says, it's going to result in a 12 per cent increase in Canada's GHG emissions when we're supposed to be aiming for a 26 per cent reduction in present levels. "It's basically going to blow our Kyoto target."
While many believe that all the gas will go to the tar sands, others acknowledge it's possible some will be diverted through other pipelines to American markets. Regardless, whether we're exporting our gas to the U.S. directly or more circuitously through oil shipments, observers are worried there is no turning back.
The Council of Canadians' Maude Barlow tells NOW that NAFTA locks us into maintaining whatever levels are established. As it stands, Barlow says over half our oil and over 60 per cent of our natural gas production goes to the U.S. - levels we're legally required to maintain. "As that percentage goes up, we're required to maintain that until we run out. And when we run out, we have to start cutting back our own energy use proportional to the U.S."
That means no national conserving for future use. In fact, our ability to maintain 25-year energy reserves - you know, in case of crisis - was effectively abolished under the North American energy integration scheme pushed for decades by politicos south of the border and finally integrated into trade deals like NAFTA.
York Enviro law professor Benjamin Richardson warns it's not the only energy dispute we might face under NAFTA. Challenges could arise under the infamous Chapter 11 clause. "Say, during the course of the project, the environmental problems are more severe than we thought and we have to modify the project. You might have U.S. investors saying, 'You have to compensate us. We've made certain investments in anticipation of this pipeline. Why are you changing the rules?'" Adds Richardson, "This could intimidate a government, which might not wish to go ahead with an amendment."
Of course, despite the risks, the government hardly seems averse to the pipeline project. Some say they're rushing it through. "The tone has shifted dramatically in Ottawa in terms of oil and gas exploration on the West Coast, which is incredibly environmentally sensitive," says NDP native affairs critic Pat Martin, who attributes the change to David Anderson's loss of his enviro ministry post. "(There is a) perception of a new commitment to having the Mackenzie Valley pipeline proceed quickly in spite of the many good arguments to the contrary." After all, it will be the largest project in Canadian history and an excellent revenue generator for government.
And if for any reason the bigger, longer Alaska Highway pipeline in the works gets ahead of the Mackenzie, it could jeopardize Canada's pipeline altogether. No wonder the PM went up to check on the project two months ago and Minister of Natural Resources John Efford recently reiterated, "We are intent in working with all parties to make sure the pipeline goes ahead." (The minister's office would not respond to repeated calls from NOW).
It's those kinds of comments that have environmentalists asking just how neutral the government will be in weighing the pipeline group's enviro impact statement, filed two weeks back. (Surprise, surprise - the statement, according to Searle, says no significant eco impacts are foreseen.)
Already, activists are suspicious of the fact that federal and NWT officials rejected appeals to have the possible oil sands link investigated in the EA - a seemingly vital consideration since a tar sands connection would have great bearing on the project's ultimate environmental impact. Observers also worry that reserves, and the pipeline, could run dry within 10 years if more gas isn't found. Many explorers are now up there sniffing for deposits, but, of course, the impact of these offshoot gas fields wasn't evaluated in the pipeline's eco impact statement.
Which brings us to another matter missing from the enviro assessment process: the Deh Cho First Nation. The group, which has title to 40 per cent of the land under the pipeline and is the only affected party that has not settled its land claim, says it's been excluded from the process. It launched a suit to stop the EA until the Deh Cho are fully consulted. But unless a judge agrees, no one seems eager to wait for the Deh Cho's approval, despite all the rhetoric about native involvement.
"The government can claim rightly that it's helping some First Nations," explains Martin. "This is hard to argue against, except that the project is wrong from day one."