Northern Gateway: Could the feds be any less pumped about this pipeline?

A man walks by signs opposing the Enbridge pipeline in downtown Kitimat, B.C. Tuesday, June, 17, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The federal Conservatives gave the green light Tuesday to one of the biggest energy projects out there – a $6.5-billion pipeline promising to open Alberta’s oilsands to the Asian market at the rate of more than half a million barrels a day.

But they seemed awfully sheepish about it.

The release announcing Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford’s decision was anything but effervescent.

It portrayed the Harper government’s decision as simply going along with the Joint Review Panel’s advice, characterized Tuesday’s announcement as merely “another step in the process” and emphasized the onus now on Enbridge to fulfil the 209 conditions the review panel recommended – including more consultation with First Nations (which, constitutional scholars have been quick to point out, doesn’t free Ottawa from its own obligation to consult – an obligation multiple lawsuits allege was never fulfilled).

Story continues below advertisement

Nowhere is there Tory crowing about its support of the oilsands industry it has touted as vital to Canada’s economy – notably south of the border, where Ottawa’s expended significant political capital pushing TransCanada‘s Keystone XL pipeline.

Minister Rickford did not speak about his statement Tuesday. No Conservative minister, in fact, was available to speak, to laud or defend a decision that environmentalists, First Nations and the B.C. government were quick to vilify.

What gives?

For one thing, this is hardly a clear win for the federal Conservatives: There are 21 B.C. Conservative MPs who’ll have to face their constituents and defend a project that’s unpopular throughout the province – something you can bet the opposition parties will endeavour to make an election issue.

For another, this is hardly a done deal: The federal government will almost certainly have to defend its decision-making process in court – specifically, the way it consulted (or, as is alleged, didn’t consult) First Nations communities up in arms against the project. This could be tricky given that Ottawa’s own envoy on aboriginal relations and energy issues has said much more needs to be done to build trust and relationships with these communities.

Then again, maybe this is the perfect response: This pipeline still faces enormous hurdles – legal as well as regulatory. It may never see the light of day, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper knows it.

Story continues below advertisement

The federal Tories’ understated Northern Gateway approval portrays it as simply common sense, in stark contrast to such forboding fulminations as NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s prediction the pipeline will be a threat to peace and order. It’s a boring stance, but one they’d likely feel comfortable fighting an election on.

IN DEPTH: Northern Gateway

Sponsored content