Thomson: Enbridge must escape a deep pit to swing pendulum of opinion

By Graham Thomson, Edmonton Journal August 14, 2012 6:27 AM

EDMONTON – It’s not the Rocky Mountains and it’s not the 773 rivers and streams in its path.

No, the biggest obstacle facing Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast is the one created by Enbridge itself: the giant hole in the company’s credibility.

The company inadvertently began making its credibility disappear by accidentally dumping more than three million litres of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, causing the largest inland pipeline spill in United States history and creating an $800-million cleanup job that is still ongoing.

When the author of a recent U.S. government report into the spill called Enbridge employees the Keystone Kops of pipeline safety, the hole where the company’s reputation used to be became the size of an open-pit mine.

Enbridge turned it into the Grand Canyon of credibility gaps by initially refusing to accept full responsibility for the spill and by making vague comments about improving pipeline safety.

When B.C. Premier Christy Clark used the Kalamazoo spill to criticize Enbridge and, more importantly, to demand a “fair share” of Alberta’s oil wealth as insurance against a similar spill from Northern Gateway, Enbridge must have finally realized its integrity was becoming the big obstacle.

So the company is trying to get its credibility back.

Last week, it took out fullpage newspaper ads in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario presenting The Facts on Pipelines.

This week, the company’s chief executive, Pat Daniel, began making the case for the Northern Gateway pipeline that would pump 500,000 barrels a day of Alberta bitumen to Kitimat for shipment to Asia.

It’s an argument that’s been made before – a $6-billion pipeline that will create jobs and economic spinoffs, mainly for B.C. – but it’s one being presented with more passion than ever before, and with a hint of exasperation if not outright desperation.

On the decidedly pipeline friendly Dave Rutherford radio show Monday morning, Daniel admitted Enbridge has been on the losing side of the Northern Gateway debate, complaining that “everything we say sounds defensive and self-interested and on the other side everything they say is really taken as gospel.”

And then Daniel went on to sound defensive and self-interested by painting everyone who is questioning the safety and economy of the Northern Gateway pipeline as anti-oil “revolutionaries.”

“I think we’re facing a very strong, almost revolutionary movement to try to get off oil worldwide, and it creates a lot of passion and drive in those revolutionaries that are trying to change the environment in which we work,” said Daniel.

“They know that going after the end use – going after you and I when we drive our car, or they drive their car, or get on an airplane – won’t work. So they’re coming after what they consider to be the weak link in the whole process, and that’s the infrastructure part of it.”

There are indeed antipipeline advocates whose unrealistic goal is to shut down the oilsands. But there are also pipeline skeptics who are not anti-oil but anti-spill, who happily drive cars but who don’t see the need to pump Alberta’s bitumen through their province simply for shipment to Asia.

And opinion polls indicate there are a good many British Columbians who, like their premier, would be willing to accept a pipeline if the price was right.Daniel is correct when he says (in his newspaper ads) that “pipelines are by far the safest, most efficient method of transporting large volumes of oil.” It’s similar to the argument that airplanes are the safest way to travel. On the relatively rare occasion when either fail, they tend to fail spectacularly and on the front page. However, both airplanes and pipelines are convenient, efficient and cheap. When we have to travel long distances, we know flying is the best way, just as we know pipelines are necessary when we have to ship large volumes of oil.

But what if we don’t have to ship large volumes of oil? That’s the question British Columbians are asking.

Alberta has to ship oil to generate income. Same with Enbridge. But not B.C. Neither Alberta nor Enbridge has made a convincing argument to British Columbians that it’s in their best interest to allow the Northern Gateway pipeline to use B.C. as a conduit to ship Alberta’s oil to Asia. Yes, they’ll get several billion dollars’ worth of investment in pipeline construction and temporary jobs but then what? And can they trust the “Keystone Kops” of pipeline operators?

B.C. wants Alberta to answer the first question. Perhaps Alberta Premier Alison Redford could do it today when she’s in Vancouver to make a speech to the Canadian Bar Association. No word, though, on whether she’ll make a detour for a chat with Premier Clark.

But you’d have to imagine that no amount of money would be acceptable to residents of B.C. if they look to Enbridge’s credibility and conclude they see nothing but a yawning hole.

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