Pipeline of mistrust: How the federal Conservative government undermined public trust in the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline review process

Stephen Harper and his federal cabinet are expected to make a final decision on whether or not to approve the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and tankers project by June 19, 2014. This timeline follows a positive recommendation from the Joint Review Panel that conducted hearings into the pipeline in British Columbia over the past two years. That recommendation is now the subject of several applications for judicial review, launched by First Nations and conservation groups who say the panel erred in law in the way it arrived at its recommendation. Nonetheless, cabinet consideration of the pipeline is no doubt proceeding, and as Stephen Harper and his ministers meet, they do so mired in an atmosphere of public skepticism and mistrust, fuelled largely by their own missteps and transgressions against the public interest.

Governments Defeat Themselves Bill Gallagher does an excellent job of documenting the demise of ill-conceived resource development projects in his book Resource Rulers: Fortune & Folly on Canada's Road to ResourcesAmong the many lessons in the book, is one akin to the adage, "government's defeat themselves", or (with a twist), "government's undermine their own regulatory reviews." In the case of Northern Gateway, a federal review and consultation process that among other things was supposed to be based on the duty to consult honourably (a concept in Aboriginal law), the federal government has clearly failed that test, and through a stream of (mis)calculated rhetoric and intimidation tactics, has undermined public confidence in the regulatory review process itself (infographic includes links to media coverage for each event):

The legal implications of the federal government's actions may someday be addressed in any one of the lawsuits that would surely follow an approval by cabinet. In the meantime however, the damage has already been done to Northern Gateway. How can anyone believe this process has been conducted in a fair and honourable fashion, with good faith, when it's clear the government was intent on undermining voices of dissent before and during the regulatory review process itself? How can First Nations and British Columbians have confidence that all registered intervenors in the review process were able to present their evidence and to have it received and considered objectively, when the government was pressuring and spying on those same intervenors behind the scenes, and the RCMP was creating surveillance reports, and apparently sharing them with the National Energy Board (the organization responsible for the Joint Review Panel)?

The Right to Say "No"

There are many reasons that the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and oil tankers project is a bad idea for British Columbia and Canada, chief among them being the inevitable oil spills that would result, and their potentially disastrous effects on coastal communities, fisheries, and endangered wildlife on BC's North Coast. Personally, I believe in the right of First Nations and British Columbians to determine what kinds of development and industry they will permit in their traditional territories and the province more generally. Fundamentally, I believe in the right of communities to say "no", if and when they find that the risks of a project outweigh the benefits.

All of that aside, the federal Conservative government has added its own entry to the growing list of reasons the pipeline should not be approved: A compromised regulatory review process that British Columbians and Canadians are right to mistrust.