After following the opening phase of the National Energy Board's hearings on the Northern Gateway oil pipeline proposal, I have a prediction: B.C. will never see this pipeline.
And that's probably the best outcome.
The first reason is the nearly unanimous opposition of informed Kitimat-area residents, led by Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Ellis Ross and skilled local volunteers who described the marine environment of the Kitimat estuary.
There was speculation that Ross, who was just appointed to chair Premier Christy Clark's new Aboriginal Business and Investment Council, might bend on the oil proposal. His testimony put that notion to rest.
The Haisla, Haida, Gitga'at and other members of the Coastal First Nations group put their marker down on managed logging and eco-tourism years before this pipeline debate heated up. California do-gooders may have coined the term "Great Bear Rainforest" but, make no mistake, these tribes run the place.
Moving inland, the Northern Gateway pipeline route is a tangle of dozens of asserted traditional territories, some in the century-old Treaty 8 zone and others with no legal settlement. Our courts will require at least another generation of millionaire lawyers to untangle the territorial claims involved, no matter what the B.C., Canadian or Chinese governments may wish to do with this oil.
The Haisla have embraced liquefied natural gas ships, plants and pipelines, which may be all the industrial development the region can handle. Condensate can continue to be shipped into Kitimat by tankers and sent by railcar to Alberta to dilute bitumen.
Which brings me to the alternatives to Northern Gateway.
CP Rail just announced a major investment in its U.S. main line south of Saskatchewan to transport crude oil from the Bakken Formation, an emerging source of shale oil and gas under Saskatchewan, Alberta and North Dakota.
CPR shipments out of North Dakota grew from 500 carloads in 2009 to more than 13,000 carloads in 2011. The new target is 70,000.
B.C.'s likeliest alternative for oilsands crude is the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which has been pumping Alberta oil and refined products to the West Coast at Burrard Inlet for nearly 60 years. Port Moody's Ioco refinery is gone but Chevron's Burnaby plant remains, and some crude goes out by tanker or pipeline to refineries south of B.C.
The current owner of Trans Mountain, Kinder Morgan Canada, is naturally watching the Enbridge battle closely. A Kinder Morgan representative provided the following information about tanker traffic from their Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby: In 2011, 32 tankers were loaded at Westridge, down from 69 in 2010. Demand varies widely (there were no tankers in 2000) and current traffic is similar to what went out of Burrard Inlet in the 1970s.
Contrary to popular belief, there is not yet a major surge to Asia. For every 10 ships that load at Westridge, on average of eight sail to California, one to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and only one to Asia.
Current Port Metro Vancouver rules allow Aframax-class tankers (80,000 to 119,000 dead weight tons) to pass under the Lions Gate and Ironworkers Memorial bridges but they can't take on a full load. That would require dredging in Second Narrows, which would increase general shipping safety as well as capacity.
Kinder Morgan has not yet formally applied to twin the Trans Mountain line. If it does expand its priceless right-of-way, the capacity would be greater than the Enbridge proposal.
One way or another, that oil will move.
And the professional environmentalist gong show over Enbridge is still to come. More on that next week.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and bclocalnews.com.