Hearings on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project

Federal Canadian hearings will begin on March 30 to consider the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project, which would transfer fossil fuels between the tar sands of Alberta and the Pacific port of Kitimat in British Columbia. The project is often viewed as an alternative to the equally controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would connect the tar sands with the oil refineries of the Gulf Coast in Texas. The Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal is particularly complex, as it would entail an eastbound pipeline sending natural gas condensate to Alberta, and a westbound pipeline sending crude oil to British Columbia. From British Columbia, oil would be exported to East Asia by tankers.  The plans also call for the construction of a major new shipping terminal at Kitimat. Protestors at the hearings “will be wearing blue scarves to symbolize their concern for coastal waters.”

The town of Kitimat (population 8,335) is situated in an interesting geographical position. Well inland, it is located on tidewater in one of coastal British Columbia’s few wide and flat valleys. Kitimat was designed and built as a company town by Alcan (the Aluminum Company of Canada) in the 1950s. The site was selected on the basis of its potential port facilities and possibilities for inexpensive hydroelectric power (aluminum smelting is a power-demanding industry). In recent years, Kitimat’s economy has not done well. From 2001 and 2006, its population dropped by over twelve percent, the largest proportional decline of any Canadian municipality, and it fell by another seven percent between 2006 and 2011.

Regardless of the fate of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, economic conditions in the Kitimat area, and more broadly across northern British Columbia, are improving rapidly.  Mining and hydroelectric development are beginning to drive local economic growth. According to a recent report:

 Some of the projects underway or moving ahead in the region, which is expected to see $8-to-$25-billion of resource investment over the next decade, include Rio Tinto Alcan’s $2.5-billion rebuild of its Kitimat aluminum smelter; the $4.5-billion KM LNG partnership …; and BC Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line worth $404 million. [T]he transmission line itself likely will generate at least half a dozen new mines in the area.

The region’s growth, however, is generating major environmental and indigenous rights controversies.