March 24, 2012 - In his new column for the Ottawa Citizen, MLI's Brian Lee Crowley outlines several reforms that would help facilitate a more constructive focus to the National Energy Board's work while balancing opponents' rights to be heard with the country's right to reach informed decisions in a timely manner. The full column is below.
By Brian Lee Crowley, Ottawa Citizen, March 24, 2012
What is it about pipelines that makes people take leave of their senses?
The Great Pipeline Debate of 1956 began a long process of decline for the Liberal Party of Canada when it caused the first chunk of their hitherto solid support to crumble in the west. The redoubtable C.D. Howe imposed closure on the parliamentary debate over the plan to build the Trans Canada Pipeline to Ontario.
While the controversy that erupted was ostensibly about the government's arrogance toward Parliament, in reality it arose from deep conflict between the east and the west over how Canada's energy resources were to be developed. The misjudgments of the Pipeline Debate brought down one of the best federal governments Canada has ever had and stoked the fires of western alienation for 50 years.
In an election year when "shovel ready" projects should be gold currency to U.S. President Barack Obama, he has caused great confusion and consternation in the energy world on both sides of the border by refusing to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Keystone, which would transport Alberta oilsands production for refining on the U.S. Gulf Coast, would have put tens of thousands of U.S. workers to work immediately. Instead Obama has preferred to play the green card, hoping that he'll win more votes by energizing the environmentalist part of his base than he'll lose by enraging the trade union part.
Even if he revisits the decision after the election, the damage done to America's reputation as a sensible energy partner for Canada has been incalculable. When we are their largest source of energy and they are trying to reduce their dependence on dangerous and undesirable energy sources like the Middle East and Venezuela, Canadians might be forgiven for thinking that Americans have a dose of pipeline madness.
Pipeline madness has reappeared in Canada too. The Northern Gateway proposal that would take oilsands production to the west coast is bogged down in a circus of a regulatory process that may take a decade to reach a conclusion. Thousands of people have signed up to testify, some from as far away as Brazil, the vast majority of them apparently of the view that this pipeline's construction will mean the end of civilization as we have known it.
Actually it is the other way around. While no particular project is indispensable, civilization does depend on the development and transport of energy resources to make them available to consumers like us around the world. Pipeline technology is safe, reliable and constantly improving. Moreover, Northern Gateway alone, according to a former chairman of the National Energy Board writing for my institute, would increase Canada's GDP by $270 billion over 30 years and create over half a million person-years of work.
Pipelines are clearly to 21st century Canada what railways were to the 19th. Done to the highest standards, the economic benefits vastly outweigh the tiny and completely manageable environmental risks they represent.
Yet pipelines, although ubiquitous, are little understood and once built, mostly invisible; they can therefore be demonized with relative ease. Their linear nature, snaking across vast distances and therefore crossing many different environments, landscapes, land uses and owners, can easily create a bewildering array of opponents. Some are genuinely concerned about environmental effects, some are looking for a big payday.
Increasingly, aboriginal people, holders of a vast array of ill-defined rights and claims, are awakening to the power they hold over natural resource development and asking how they can use that power both to protect their environment and bring prosperity to their communities. The regulatory system for approving these projects is groaning under the burden of hearing all of these interests repeat their views at every stage, with opponents' participation often subsidized by the taxpayer.
To cure our pipeline madness and clear the regulatory bottleneck, Ottawa should make several vital changes, possibly even in the forthcoming budget. First, it should put in place rules about what should be considered evidence in approval hearings and how it could be heard and adjudicated.
For efficiency's sake, the government should also require that objectors having similar viewpoints be grouped together, rather than letting pipeline opponents grind down the public hearing processes by sheer force of numbers rather than by the quality of their evidence and argument.
Finally the government should be empowered to make findings that proposed projects are in the national interest, and then invite the NEB to undertake hearings on how best to build those projects.
Taken together, such reforms would give a more constructive focus to the NEB's work while better balancing opponents' right to be heard with the country's right to reach informed decisions in a reasonable time. It might not cure our pipeline madness, but it would certainly make the symptoms more manageable.
Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think-tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.