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Beneath Enbridge’s PR Spin

December 15, 2010

On December 2nd 61 First Nations with territory in the Fraser River watershed spoke up against Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline – the Save the Fraser Gathering of Nations Declaration.  The same day the Nations published a full page ad in the Globe and Mail. 

Enbridge was quick off the bat to respond, emailing its own commentary on the Save the Fraser Declaration to its email lists and posting it to its blog that same morning.  Similarly, a few days later after MPs voted on December 7th in Ottawa to call on the government of Canada to pass legislation banning tanker traffic from BC’s North Coast, Enbridge was quick to respond with its own statement

It would sure be nice if West Coast had the communications staff that Enbridge has at its disposal.  However, we’ve been busy calling MPs and pressing them to vote, and the like.  So we’ve only gotten around just now to writing our own response to Enbridge’s emails and blog posts. 

Enbridge on the Fraser Declaration

Enbridge begins its message on the Fraser Declaration by noting that “some groups” have expressed their opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline.  It then attempts to reassure its readers that the pipeline does (really) have the support of “a great many people, including First Nations and community members along the proposed route.”

EnbridgeMagnify.jpegWhile there will always be a diversity of opinion in any community, including First Nations, Enbridge is deliberately vague on specifics.  There are now two declarations (the Save the Fraser Declaration and the Coastal First Nations Declaration to Ban Tar Sands Oil Tankers) signed by the vast majority of the Nations directly and indirectly impacted by the Enbridge pipeline.  These Nations, as represented by their leadership, are on record as opposing the pipeline.  By contrast, Enbridge has not identified a single Nation that supports its position. 

(It is true that some Nations have agreed to participate in the environmental assessment of the process, and to accept participant funding to allow them to do so.  This is NOT the same as supporting the project, or even endorsing the assessment process.  Not one First Nation has gone on record as supporting Enbridge’s pipeline. It is also true that Enbridge has “protocol agreements” with a number of First Nations, which provide resources for those Nations to review the massive amount of data Enbridge has submitted in its application to build these pipelines. None of those Nations have indicated any support for the project itself.)

Enbridge’s use of the phrase “some groups”, without acknowledging the unique role of First Nations, is dismissive.  It ignores the fact that these so-called “groups” are Nations that are able to establish Aboriginal Title and have the legal authority to make decisions about the use of their lands and waters. Enbridge’s statement ignores that these Nations have a constitutional right to be consulted and accommodated in relation to government decisions which impact their rights, and that the government has neglected to conduct even the most minimal consultations with many of the Nations downstream of the Enbridge pipeline’s proposed river crossings that have signed the Save the Fraser Declaration. West Coast has discussed these and similar risks for the Pipeline in our Legal Comment on the Coastal First Nations No Tankers Declaration

Enbridge’s next line of defence is to assert that if there are unacceptable environmental risks posed by the current project, the Joint Review Panel that is currently assessing the project under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the National Energy Board Act, will discover this and stop the project from proceeding.  “Impartial, public regulatory processes like the Joint Review Panel are the way Canada decides whether or not projects like Northern Gateway can precede in an informed manner.”

Would that this were so.  The fact is that the federal environmental assessment system has only ever found an unacceptable environmental impact in three cases of the more than 10,000 considered since 2003. For example, a massive tarsands project which will by itself contribute more than 1% of Canada’s annual Greenhouse Gas emissions, has been found by a joint review panel not to have any significant environmental impact.  The fact that assessments are now being led by the National Energy Board raises additional concerns. 

Assessments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, in those rare cases in which they are properly implemented, can be an opportunity for the type of informed assessment that Enbridge suggests is taking place for their proposed pipeline project (for instance, this was the case just recently with the Prosperity Mine project).  However, this is far and away the exception rather than the rule – for the vast majority of projects the process downplays environmental harm and underestimates environmental risks. 

Enbridge then points to its recent overtures to First Nations, offering to include them in the economic benefits of the pipeline.  But just today (December 16th) the Nations associated with the Yinka Dene Alliance rejected Enbridge’s offers.  The First Nations that have signed the declarations have been very clear that this is not about money – but about protecting their territories. 

Enbridge next points out that “The Northern Gateway pipeline will not cross rivers as big as the Fraser River” and implies that the Nations of the Fraser Watershed are not affected by the proposed pipeline. Enbridge goes on to argue that it has the technology and expertise to build pipelines across rivers that are smaller than the Fraser River (to which we would say simply: “Kalamazoo”). 

But Enbridge’s PR spin misses the point of the Declaration.  No one has said that the pipeline will be built across the Fraser.  Rather, the Pipeline will, if constructed, cross the Fraser River’s headwaters, and many of the rivers and streams which flow into it.  In the event of a spill, the oil will be flushed downstream and into the Fraser.  In the event of a large spill, the consequences could be felt well downstream and potentially all the way to the coast.  West Coast made this point earlier this year in our assessment of the downstream impacts of the pipeline:

The pipelines will cross over 1,000 streams and rivers, including the headwaters of the Fraser River (crossing the Stuart, Endako and Salmon Rivers) and the headwaters of the Skeena River (crossing the Morice and Bulkley watersheds). Each of these stream crossings will require two pipeline crossings, as the project consists of twinned pipelines. The project has the potential to seriously affect First Nations downstream of these crossings. The toxic effects of a spill could be felt for hundreds of kilometres, stretching down the entire length of the Fraser River to the sea.

Enbridge’s CEO has conceded that that there is always a risk of an accident when dealing with pipelines.  This is qualified by assurances that the company has plans to ensure that the impacts of such spills are kept to a minimum.  Even if this is the case (and again the many spills of the past several years tend to undermine Enbridge’s arguments), the question remains, do the people and Nations of the Fraser River watershed want to bear this risk?

Enbridge on the Parliamentary Vote

Enbridge’s communications on the vote in Parliament, (on December 7th), started with the straightforward - and correct – observation that the motion calling for a legislated ban on tanker traffic on BC’s North Coast is not legally binding:

Although disappointing to us, the Opposition motion is not binding on the government and it will not impact the rigorous regulatory process currently underway to consider Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Project.

While it is not binding, the motion expresses the majority will of Parliament and introduces a moral obligation for the Canadian government to introduce such legislation.  Enbridge is now on notice that the majority in Parliament is willing to support a ban on Tanker traffic, and it, and its investors, should not be surprised if, down the road, Parliament enacts such a ban.  Indeed, that day could come sooner rather than later, as last Tuesday (December 14th) Liberal MPJoyce Murray introduced a private members bill to put such a ban in place.  If passed, this bill will have the legal teeth that the motion lacks. 

Once again, Enbridge relies heavily on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act joint panel review and claims this process will ensure that the environment is protected.  As discussed above, this claim should be viewed with a pinch of salt. 

Finally, Enbridge ends with the recent full-page ads in support of the pipeline published nationwide in numerous papers by a so-called “community coalition” – the Northern Gateway Alliance.  But not only does the Northern Gateway Alliance website only identify 9 individuals as members (“Alliance Leaders”) of this coalition, but the Prince George Citizen has revealed that Enbridge is bankrolling the coalition

… [T]he chair of the Northern Gateway Alliance, former Prince George mayor Colin Kinsley, is on Enbridge's payroll. Neither Enbridge nor Kinsley deny that Enbridge is bankrolling the Alliance, and that the community group was the company's idea.

There is no reason to believe that the Alliance speaks for anyone other than Enbridge and these 9 "Alliance Leaders". 

Conclusion

The fight over the Enbridge Pipeline is far from over.  However, the past couple of weeks have been encouraging for the opponents of oil supertankers on BC’s coast, and oil pipelines in the headwaters of several of BC’s most critical rivers.  Enbridge’s communications strategy cannot gloss over the fact that opposition by First Nations in BC, and by Parliament, pose major risks for the company and its investors. 

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer