Could this be the way to stop Kinder Morgan?

The Dogwood Initiative hopes an HST-style referendum might halt the controversial pipeline project

July 25, 2016

By Max Fawcett / Photo: Mark Klotz

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the National Energy Board had rejected Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline project. After all, its May 19 decision found that any additional tanker traffic would have “significant adverse effects” on both the southern resident killer whale population and the aboriginal cultural use associated with it. More importantly, perhaps, the three-person panel reviewing the project noted that while the odds of a large spill from either the pipeline or any tanker that had been fed by it were “of very low probability,” it could not rule out a spill—or the consequences that would quite literally flow from one.

And yet, despite those adverse effects, the NEB panel hearing the application ended up giving it their support—albeit with 157 conditions. Now, a new panel will spend the summer consulting with affected communities and interested parties on the broader environmental impacts of the pipeline project, with a decision by the federal cabinet expected by the end of 2016. But for Rueben George, a ceremonial chief and spokesperson for the Tsleil-Waututh nation, those risks are intolerable for his community and the other First Nations who share the Salish Sea. “It’s not if a spill would happen, it’s when. That’s the biggest risk. That’s why we’re doing the work that we’re doing—we have to rehabilitate what we have.”

What they have, he says, is an inlet that’s the foundation of their sense of identity, their cultural practice, and their traditional way of life—one George says they’ve been working to restore. “For the first time in 30 years, we’re going to have a clam harvest because we’re already cleaning our inlet.” The pipeline could also jeopardize the burgeoning salmon populations in the Indian River, ones whose annual counts have risen from 10,000 a decade ago to more than 10 million today. “It’s amazing what they’re doing, and the tankers counter that work.” That’s why, George says, the NEB’s recommendation doesn’t change the strategy of local (and potentially affected) First Nations. “I’m not worried about it. It’s work as usual. We’re going to continue to go to court and do everything we can to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Kai Nagata, the Dogwood Initiative’s communications director, is taking a different approach. He says he wasn’t surprised by the decision, noting that the Harper government’s 2012 move to vest final authority in the federal cabinet effectively neutered the NEB. “Even if it was a no, or a ‘go back and do more homework,’ the feds could still override that,” Nagata says. That’s why he’s not leaving it to the feds—or the province, for that matter. Instead, he wants to put the matter in the hands of British Columbians. “There are some decisions that have decades-long consequences and trade-offs that should not be made by people who are operating on a four-year political cycle,” he says. “And this might be one of them.” His organization has relaunched its website and will begin collecting signatures of support for what he hopes is an eventual province-wide vote. “It’s a very high bar to cross,” Nagata says, “but we feel we’re better prepared than any group has been in B.C.”

UBC political science professor Richard Johnston isn’t so sure. “I think the odds that they would successfully clear the qualification thresholds for an initiative on this one are pretty long,” he says. Indeed, the only initiative that’s met that threshold within the last 20 years was the one to kill the HST, a harmonization of the province’s sales tax with the federal GST—and that was the product of a bizarre alliance between former Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm and the organized labour movement. “Until the HST referendum, every earlier attempt didn’t even come close, and people basically gave up until the HST came along,” Johnston says.

Still, despite those odds, Johnston thinks Dogwood has picked the right issue to run on. Never mind that the chance of a major tanker spill is, relatively speaking, negligibly low, or that many of the conditions imposed by the NEB relate to improved operational safety. “It’s really the fear of tanker spills that drives opinion in the Lower Mainland,” he says. Nagata, meanwhile, thinks giving that opinion a chance to express itself might actually be good for everyone involved, given that the current process hasn’t done any favours for either the proponents of the project or the politicians who are being forced to pick a side on it. “If you want a clear answer,” Nagata says, “that might be the way to do it.”

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