GUEST COLUMN: How much risk is worth the reward?

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The Enbridge pipeline proposal increasingly looks like it will fail due to lack of public support. In fact, as unlikely as it may seem, the Northern Gateway project may prove so unpopular that the Harper government could find it difficult to accept a “go report” by the National Energy Board, never mind consider overriding a “no report.”

But a thumbs down by either or both the NEB and the federal Conservatives won’t necessarily result in abandoning the objective of pumping bitumen across B.C. for loading onto tankers. Rather, it simply means the Kinder Morgan project becomes increasingly important as a fallback plan.

In fact, doubling an existing pipeline might be regarded by the oil sands industry and its federal supporters as an easier sell. They can argue that it has been operating for 60 plus years with little or no damage to the environment, that oil tankers have been plying Burrard Inlet for just as long without major incident, and that expanding the existing line is far less intrusive environmentally. In other words, expanding the Kinder Morgan pipeline could be represented as a reasonable alternative.

To this end, Kinder Morgan is learning a lot from the Enbridge hearings in terms of not so much as what not to say about pipelines but how not to say it. Thus, for example, it can be expected KM will take a much different approach about any spills and leaks over 60 years of operation, and that it will avoid advertising mistakes like “disappearing” land masses. Just how the company will deal with the heavy and toxic nature of diluted bitumen, however, remains to be seen.

There are some different issues, of course, such as communities that have built up over the years around the existing pipeline route versus the need for a larger “safety zone” on either side which will require an expropriation of private property. And of course, there is the fact the line will be deviated in some cases through pristine wilderness, that storage facilities at the Burnaby terminal will be considerably enlarged, that the Burnaby loading docks (where spills are more likely to occur) will be doubled, and that the tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet will be considerably increased.

We shouldn’t be surprised if there is an attempt to overshadow these matters by stressing the economic benefits of selling bitumen to overseas markets thirsty for fossil fuels. For the past several months business and industry writers have been repeating the mantra that piping bitumen west means money in the coffers of government to help pay for all those public services we now enjoy, and that the risks involved are well worth the rewards to be reaped.

This may continue to be compelling to some, but there is no disguising the fact that it does tend to misrepresent the economic and political reality at work; that is, compared to the money to be made by the oil sands industry and its investors, the amount accruing to governments is really quite small.

Some would even describe it as less than chump change.

Whatever, the point is that it is highly unlikely that any money flowing to government would be used to stop the systematic dismantling or scaling back of public services, such as health care, unemployment insurance and environmental protection.

And, really, when it comes right down to it just how much money could we expect a pipeline to put into our provincial coffers?

How much is needed to render the risk to the environment acceptable?

These are matters raised by Premier Clark with respect to Enbridge and in her government’s view they apply equally as well to Trans Mountain.

But it does beg a more difficult (and, as yet, avoided) question: How do you calculate the point where risk and reward balance each other?

Indeed, is it even capable of calculation?

Bill Brassington is a Burnaby resident and husband of Janet Routledge, BCNDP candidate for Burnaby North.

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