COLUMN: So much energy spent on energy

Daniel Palmer looks at the Northern Gateway pipeline panel, among other energy issues

Wherever pipelines are concerned, expect an eclectic party.

With the federal government’s Enbridge Northern Gateway joint review panel wrapping up its week-long hearings at the Delta Ocean Pointe Resort, the usually picturesque waterfront erupted into a hotbed of environmental protest.

The closed-door panel, which concludes today, spent more than a week working its way through a registered list of about 280 public speakers.

Interested observers were given the option of listening to an audio-only webcast of the event – which had the distinct quality of a wartime emergency broadcast – or of watching a video feed at the Ramada Victoria Hotel, three kilometres away on Gorge Road.

Several hundred frustrated protesters rejected these two arms-length participatory options and gathered along the walkway in front of the Inner Harbour hotel.

Even Victoria MP Murray Rankin, an expert on and opponent of the pipeline project, was turned away at the door last Friday. Rankin called the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency process “fundamentally flawed,” and expressed little hope the end result would leave the public feeling heard. He also justifiably lambasted security for denying entry to the very person elected to represent the public at the federal level.

Adding fuel to the protest flames is the nihilism behind the joint review panel’s mandate. The Conservative government’s omnibus bill, C-38, makes clear that any recommendation by the panel is exactly that: for consideration only.

Stephen Harper’s cabinet can compel the federal environmental agency to approve the Enbridge project, regardless of public will or opinion.

There must be a sense of disillusionment amongst the panel’s members, collecting and collating the opinions of around 4,000 Canadians, knowing all the while their words bear the weight of a novelty inflatable hammer.

To be fair, the approval or rejection of this pipeline isn’t a decision that should be taken lightly. The world wants oil from a politically stable and efficient partner. Canada bears both these qualities, relatively speaking, and has enough bitumen to fill 100 billion barrels – likely double that.

In an age where social security costs show no sign of retreat and taxpayers are gripping tightly to every penny (soon-to-be nickel), oil revenue presents a feasible way for the country to pull itself out of a fiscal recession and fill its storehouses for generations.

And then there’s the latest international energy darling and saviour to our financial woes – liquified natural gas.

B.C. is teeming with the stuff, as evidenced by a recent Chevron investment in the Kitimat LNG facility, where the province says exports could reach 75 million tonnes per year, pending agreements with Asian buyers.

The National Energy Board has already greenlit LNG exports to the tune of 10 million tonnes annually, although billions of dollars still need to be invested if B.C. wants to play with the big boys. But the elephant in the room, which trumpeted loudly from the Songhees walkway this week, is the environmental cost of these lucrative ventures.

Comments from senior cabinet ministers indicate environmental protesters are no more than a nuisance, people who fail to recognize the opportunities at hand. The us vs. them mentality doesn’t play well on either side, but it seems fundamentally un-Canadian for the feds to swat away public input like a pesky housefly.

Perhaps the government could try framing the energy debate in a more tempered manner.

The so-called “modernization” of environmental regulations should be rolled out with scientists and other green stakeholders at the table, giving legitimacy to a process that’s been sold as all but a middle finger to granola-eating community farmers and their kin.

Canadians know we need diverse exports, a strong economy and long-term financial stability. We also know we need to balance that with stewarding our resources and minimizing environmental risk.

Take a moment this week to wish the joint review panel luck as they move on to Vancouver for another week of invite-only hearings – they’re going to need it.

Daniel Palmer is a reporter with the Victoria News.

dpalmer@vicnews.com