The Northern Gateway Pipeline Project Review is finally underway ... quite a few years after this project to ship Albertan oil to customers in Asia became a subject for public debate.
It was appropriate, perhaps, that the first session of these hearings into the possible impacts of this ambitious but hugely contentious project began in Kitimat – or rather Kitamaat Village -- where the Haisla Nation, whose interests are doubtless much more personal than most, as usual politely extended a warm welcome to both friends and foes of the project.
To be honest, I expected a bit more of a circus atmosphere last week, considering the numerous higher-profile demonstrations taking place in other locations across Canada as opponents of the pipeline use various artifices to illustrate the potential risks the pipeline and tankers represent to the environment in British Columbia or the spill consequences to the BC coastline and the Douglas Channel.
Depending on one’s personal viewpoint, these may be of little interest in your daily life - or of all-consuming concern.
At Kitamaat Village, the two days of presentations were somewhat hectic, as volunteers attempted to accommodate the needs of the relatively small number of presenters, including the local hereditary and elected chiefs, representing the views, one expects, of a large majority of the residents of that small community.
Significant numbers of media people - reporters, columnists, photographers, television cameramen, radio commentators and sound technicians - tried to find a clear sight line to the presenters. At the same time, a crew of support people from the NEB project review administration were quietly trying to ensure that the daily procedure of the hearings will fall into a manageable routine to accomplish the objectives of the review over the next 15-18 months.
It was all very civilized – people doing their jobs, watched with curiosity by the local residents, the walk-in audience from Kitimat and the region, and the large number of people representing various organizations with more specific pro and con objectives wishing to hear details of what they are up against.
As I attended the opening ceremonies and initial presentations and later listened to the web cast of the oral proceedings, there emerged a pattern from the panel, clearly trying to set a routine for many more months of similar presentations, much of which will surely be repetitive.
Repeatedly, chairman Sheila Leggett intervened patiently to establish with early presenters that individual informed opinion on impacts was the objective of the hearings. Questions could be submitted, she explained, but there was no availability of qualified responders to answer them and this would take place at a later date and time.
As a writer-commenter, I have followed the Enbridge saga closely since it was first mooted. So I have spent a lot of time in the past few years, and in particular over the past few days, reading many of the varied points of view on the project.
About two years ago I wrote that in the information vacuum it was no surprise that so many definitive and firm pro and con opinions were being expressed by groups with agendas and that there was a need for the direct and meaningful review process to be completed and recommendations obtained from a panel.
I’m still not sure it’s the right approach, but it is the Canadian way, the middle-of-the-road approach, and now I see it in action I feel more comfortable that people will have the opportunity to record their say on what goes on in their region.
I do feel Kitimat needs more and better jobs and ongoing industrial and commercial development to ensure the growth and maturing of the community.
Is it Enbridge’s pipeline and an oil port and super-tankers? That I don’t know, nor do I presume to know.
What I do believe, however, is that few of those making presentations in support or in opposition to the project will likely reverse their points of view after the mountain of taped oral and written studies, reports and opinions has been reviewed by this panel in the coming months.
The crescendo of noise, demonstration and debate ultimately will only satisfy one side or the other. Over the years of animated discussion, I have not seen middle ground.
Still, that’s the nature of democracy in Canada today. Freedom of thought and its presentation in speech is a right which is only really useful or satisfactory if the final outcome agrees with your view.
Whether it’s in the “national interest” or not, a political decision, likely to come in 2013 or thereabouts, will more likely determine whether Enbridge breaks ground across BC, or develops an oil port in Kitimat.
About that time, if not earlier, the courts will weigh in on whether that decision is constitutional and the process will lurch to the next stage. Thousands will disagree with every position along the way...