Rob Gillies

KITAMAAT VILLAGE, BRITISH COLUMBIA: The latest chapter in Canada’s quest to become a full-blown oil superpower unfolded this month in a village gym on the British Columbia coast.


There, several hundred people gathered for hearings on whether a pipeline should be laid from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific in order to deliver oil to Asia, chiefly energy-hungry China. The stakes are particularly high for the village of Kitamaat and its neighbors, because the pipeline would terminate there and a port would be built to handle 220 tankers a year and 525,000 barrels of oil a day.


But the planned Northern Gateway Pipeline is just one aspect of an epic battle over Canada’s oil ambitions — a battle that already has a supporting role in the U.S. presidential election, and which will help to shape North America’s future energy relationship with China.


It actually is a tale of two pipelines — the one that is supposed to end at Kitamaat Village, and another that would have gone from Alberta to the Texas coast but was blocked by the Obama administration citing environmental grounds.


Those same environmental issues are certain to haunt Northern Gateway as the Joint Review Panel of energy and environmental officials canvasses opinion along the 731-mile route of the Northern Gateway pipeline to be built by Enbridge, a Canadian company.


The fear of oil spills is especially acute in this pristine corner of northwest British Columbia, with its snowcapped mountains and deep ocean inlets.


People there still remember Alaska’s Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, and oil is still leaking from the Queen of the North, a ferry that sank off nearby Hartley Bay six years ago.


The seas nearby, in the Douglas Channel, “are very treacherous waters,” said David Suzuki, a leading environmentalist.


“You take a supertanker that takes miles in order to stop, [and] an accident is absolutely inevitable.”


Wake-up call


Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada’s national interest makes the $5.5 billion pipeline essential. He was “profoundly disappointed” that President Barack Obama rejected the Texas Keystone XL option but also spoke of the need to diversify Canada’s oil industry. Ninety-seven percent of Canadian oil exports now go to the United States.


“I think what’s happened around the Keystone is a wake-up call, the degree to which we are dependent or possibly held hostage to decisions in the United States, and especially decisions that may be made for very bad political reasons,” the Conservative prime minister told Canadian TV.


Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich quickly picked up the theme, saying that Harper, “who, by the way, is conservative and pro-American ... has said he’s going to cut a deal with the Chinese ... We’ll get none of the jobs, none of the energy, none of the opportunity.”


But the environmental objections that pushed Obama to block the pipeline to Texas apply equally to the Pacific pipeline, and the review panel said more than 4,000 people have signed up to testify.


Environmentalists and First Nations (a Canadian synonym for native tribes) could delay approval all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court.


Alberta has the world’s third-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela: more than 170 billion barrels. Daily production of 1.5 million barrels from the oil sands is expected to increase to 3.7 million in 2025, which the oil industry sees as a pressing reason to build the pipelines.


Critics dislike the whole concept of tapping the oil sands, saying it requires huge amounts of energy and water, increases greenhouse gas emissions and threatens rivers and forests. Some projects are massive open-pit mines, and the process of separating oil from sand can generate lake-sized pools of toxic sludge.