Stephen Harper's gift to the environmental movement

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may not realize it, but his government's decision to conditionally approve the Northern Gateway pipeline may be a huge gift to the very folks who are leading the charge against the pipeline ever being built.

That would be the Canadian environmental movement, which has made Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline Enemy Number One.

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By giving the project semi-official "status" the Harper government has ensured the environmental movement now has a surefire and lucrative fundraising weapon, and an organizing one as well. To be sure, the enviros have been dining out on Northern Gateway for some time now, but they can now ramp up their anti-pipeline campaign big-time and take it to the international stage.

But the irony here (aside from the fact that Harper is actually aiding the environmentalists) is that there is a good chance the Northern Gateway won't even be built.  For all the outrage whipped up by pipeline foes as part of a fundraising scheme, it is more likely not a single pipe is ever laid along the proposed route.

And given the way the Harper government made the pipeline announcement - a terse four-paragraph news release at 5 p.m. Ottawa time, without a single cabinet minister or B.C. Conservative MP being around to even talk about it - one may think it shares the doubts about this project ever coming to fruition.

Enbridge is facing many obstacles, some of them significant and others less so. But put them all together, and they create what may be a mountain that is impossible to scale.

For starters, there are the 209 conditions the federal Joint Review Panel attached to its own approval of the project. More than half of them must be met before construction can even begin, and some seem onerous.

For example, the company must complete a detailed survey of all kinds of wild species and aquatic marine life, as well as such things as "culturally modified trees" that have grown since 1846 (when B.C. became Crown land).

But perhaps most importantly, Enbridge has to prove it has consulted adequately with First Nations affected by the project, and on this point the company is especially vulnerable. While it says it has secured the support of more than 20 First Nations bands, the fact remains that many more vehemently oppose the project.

The B.C. courts and the Supreme Court of Canada have demonstrated that a lack of aboriginal treaties in this province has meant First Nations' interests must be accommodated and respected, and that bodes ill for the Northern Gateway project.

And then there is the B.C. government, which is no small problem for Enbridge.

Premier Christy Clark has set five distinct conditions that have to be met before her government will support the project. Only one of them - getting through an environmental assessment process - has been achieved, and it's unlikely any of  the others will come close to being met.

She and Environment Minister Mary Polak have said if the conditions are not met, then B.C. will not grant any of the 60 provincial permits that Enbridge must secure for various activities, including construction of a pipeline.

The federal government distributed a backgrounder when it announced its approval of the pipeline. It ever so helpfully lists the dozen or so provincial pieces of legislation that come into play with this project. I can picture provincial bureaucrats right now eagerly awaiting the chance to nix a permit for Enbridge because, say, an archeological site may be disturbed by a construction crew.

No, for all kinds of reasons - 209 conditions, First Nations opposition, the B.C. government's opposition - it's more than likely the Northern Gateway pipeline will never be built.

There's no sense trying to convince the environmental movement of that, though. It's going to be too busy using what could end up being a phantom project to  raise a lot of money.

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 When Premier Christy Clark gets around to the first shuffle of her post-election cabinet, I suspect the person leading the short list for being dumped will be Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk. After denying any wrongdoing, an investigation found he broke the rules for disclosing public sector compensation while he was on the board of Kwantlen College (before he was elected).

I would think there are now at least a few B.C. Liberal backbenchers who may think themselves more worthy of a cabinet post than Virk, and I have to wonder whether the premier might come to that conclusion as well.

Keith Baldrey is the chief political reporter for Global B.C.

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