Brian Lee Crowley

A primer on Canada’s pipeline mess for Canadians and others

On the topic of pipelines in general and Trans Mountain in particular, there has of course been much action in recent weeks, including most notably Ottawa’s acquisition of the TM project from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion. Here are two examples of my commentary on the issue:

30 May 2018 I published an op-ed in the Financial Post arguing that the Liberals are chiefly the authors of their own misfortune on TM, through their ill-advised political alliance with the hard-line environmental movement. I predict that they will reap the social licence whirlwind when their erstwhile allies really get serious about civil disobedience.

Then on June 12th I sought to explain to an international audience the issues surrounding TM and pipelines in general in the context of Ottawa’s sudden ownership of TM. The Washington Examiner was kind enough to publish my piece. I also did a video version of the op-ed which is available at the top of the MLI page.

MLI Study in the Vancouver Sun: First Nations support key to future of pipelines

Following the release of MLI’s latest study The Way Out: new thinking about Aboriginal engagement and energy infrastructure to the west coast, part of our ground-breaking series Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resources Economy, my project co-leader Ken Coates, and I write in the Vancouver Sun that First Nations support will be one of the most important aspects for any energy project in Canada.

First Nations support key to future of pipelines


Just a few weeks ago, proponents of pipelines between the Prairies and the West Coast were preparing for the worst. Adrian Dix, the apparently victory-bound leader of the B.C. NDP, had already declared Enbridge’s Northern Gateway would be dead on his watch and, mid-election, pronounced a similar sentence on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion plans.

The subsequent Liberal upset victory, which many analysts attribute to the NDP’s fervent opposition to wealth-creating pipelines, has given the Northern Gateway project a partial reprieve. But despite strong federal backing and now a pro-growth provincial government, the project hangs by a thread.

Premier Christy Clark has significant reservations, and knows that proceeding would attract cries of outrage from environmentalists. B.C. has its own problems with Alberta, and the souring of relations between the two western provinces over pipelines has the potential to cause great economic harm to the country. Neither issue, however, is the greatest barrier to the project’s success.

First Nations along the pipeline route hold the hammer on this project. If they remain opposed to the Enbridge proposal or to the idea of energy corridors to the coast, no pipeline will be built. Full stop. First Nations have primary social and cultural standing in this debate. If they cannot be convinced that the pipeline serves their interests and provides adequate environmental protection, the project is not going to proceed.

Equally important, First Nations have growing legal clout, best embodied in the Supreme Court recognition of the government’s duty to consult and accommodate aboriginal interests, which could hold up construction indefinitely. Even with strong federal government support and an approved environmental plan, the Northern Gateway Project likely cannot proceed.

With strong aboriginal support, however, much becomes possible. The most intense environmental activists will oppose Northern Gateway, no matter what. More practical environmentalists and conservationists, including the B.C. public, realize that resource development can be properly and safely managed. First Nations’ support, with its environmental credibility, would likely weigh heavily with them. With aboriginal backing, we think a majority of British Columbians can be brought on board.

The First Nations’ power over development arises out of a complex web of unresolved land claims, legal victories, constitutional recognition of aboriginal rights, and indigenous self-government. Aboriginal Canadians are now indispensable partners in resource development – including major infrastructure – and this reality is not going to change.

Nor is this a bad thing. Most First Nations are supportive of development, provided it proceeds on their terms and with appropriate returns in the form of jobs, revenue and business creation. There are dozens of major projects underway across the country in real partnership with First Nations, bringing substantial benefits to local communities, Canadian business and the national economy.

How will this work for Northern Gateway? Some First Nations along the pipeline route, including the Haisla on whose traditional lands the Kitimat terminus is located, are willing to proceed with properly managed development projects. First Nations along the route will have to agree to participate in Northern Gateway, ideally as equity partners (the Enbridge proposal includes 10-per-cent aboriginal equity ownership). In addition to equity participation, a proper arrangement would involve a commitment to the world’s highest standards for environmental protection along the corridor and on the coast, plus arrangements for aboriginal business development and job training, and sustained revenues for First Nations communities.

Assuming Northern Gateway gets suitable environmental and regulatory approval from the current Joint Review Process, a new approach to First Nations participation will still be needed. That almost certainly means more substantial equity ownership (not least because the equity must be shared among so many First Nations) and aboriginal involvement in environmental and project management and oversight. First Nations must be assured that they will be primary beneficiaries from a project that crosses their lands, bringing opportunity and employment instead of the unregulated socio-economic change and environmental risk they too often experienced in the past.

The way we develop resources in Canada is changing profoundly. Like it or not, Northern Gateway is a symbol for the new order. The project’s current trajectory stokes vigorous aboriginal opposition that alone could be enough to stall or even kill a project that could create vast wealth for Canadians.

A much better outcome is possible, one that meets the objections of most who oppose the project on environmental grounds and that assures aboriginal people of sustained and long-term benefits from the construction and operation of the pipeline. Northern Gateway could, with political will and openness to new arrangements, be transformed from a symbol of the new-found power of aboriginal people to stop vital national projects into a model of the real partnerships that henceforth will be the indispensable key to responsible resource development in Canada.

Brian Lee Crowley is managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Ken Coates is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan. They are co-authors of The Way Out: New thinking about Aboriginal engagement and energy infrastructure to the West Coast, just released by the institute and available at

The Way Out: New thinking about Aboriginal engagement and energy infrastructure to the West Coast

Very proud to be co-author of this important paper over at outlining how Canada can live up to its potential as world energy superpower by engaging with First Nations to rescue the Northern Gateway (and other pipelines) to the West coast.  Official MLI news release and links below, please read the paper “The Way Out: New thinking about Aboriginal engagement and energy infrastructure to the West Coast“, part of MLI’s ongoing series of studies on Aboriginal communities and Canada’s resource economy.



Rescuing Northern Gateway

How engagement with and equity participation by Aboriginal communities can help Canada live up to its potential as a world energy superpower

OTTAWA May 30, 2013 – Canada is failing to live up to its potential as an energy superpower due to a lack of access to world markets, but a new paper by the Macdonald-Laurier Instituteshows how the Northern Gateway pipeline project can be put on sounder footing and deliver sustainable benefits to Canadians, including First Nations in the pipeline corridor, by increasing access to Asia.

Presently, Western Canada’s oil resources are suffering from artificially low prices as a result of lack of access to growing markets in Asia. The Northern Gateway project would help to rectify this ongoing shortfall, delivering oil to energy hungry China and India, tens of billions in increased GDP for Canadians and increased revenue for provincial and federal governments.

Right now, the biggest obstacle to approving the pipeline is not inter-provincial jurisdictional squabbles or even environmental concerns –though these are important – but the Aboriginal communities along the pipeline corridor.  Aboriginal opposition to the pipeline alone is likely enough to cripple or kill Northern Gateway and any other energy pipeline to the West coast.

With Aboriginal support, however, much is possible.

Backed up by a series of legal victories, constitutional recognition of Aboriginal rights and self-government, and examples of successful partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organizations, the best way to remove the main obstacles facing Northern Gateway is to engage Aboriginal communities, not only in terms of consultation but as equity stakeholders,” argue the paper’s authors Ken Coates and Brian Lee Crowley.

“Our goal with this paper was to lay out the steps that can rescue the Northern Gateway project from its current impasse, highlighting that Aboriginal communities are not opposed to development”, say the paper’s authors.  “Quite the opposite.  There are many examples of successful Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal partnerships that can serve as models to ensure that Northern Gateway can live up to its potential to produce enormous wealth for all Canadians, including Aboriginal Canadians.”

“We want to make sure that Canadians understand that Northern Gateway stands at the intersection of Canada’s aspirations to be a world energy superpower; environmental standards of 21st century resource development; and the present and future status of Aboriginal/Non-aboriginal relations in Canada.” added Coates and Crowley.  “It is in the national interest that this project move forward; otherwise, as we document in the paper, the costs of this missed opportunity would be enormous for all Canadians, not only those in Alberta and British Columbia.

The authors have identified several key factors that would help ensure Northern Gateway can be completed, including:

  • Self-financing equity participation by Aboriginal communities to ensure full partnership in every aspect of the project’s execution and operation while reducing dependence on government;
  • Creation of several separate revenue streams that benefit First Nations all along the pipeline corridor;
  • A new long-term and region-wide approach to Impact and Benefit Agreements (IBAs) that guarantee jobs, training and other economic opportunities;
  • Creating a template for further energy infrastructure developments and opening the possibility of routing them through an Aboriginal energy corridor;
  • World-leading environmental monitoring and response in the event of a spill, both along the pipeline corridor and the marine corridors where shipping traffic will occur;
  • Specific steps the governments of Canada, British Columbia and Alberta can take to make this project more acceptable to public opinion and affected communities.

Northern Gateway continues to face strong opposition, threatening the project’s viability and the vast wealth it could potentially generate for Canadians. By actively engaging with the Aboriginal communities along the corridor, and fair dealing in establishing equity partnerships to share the risks and the rewards the pipeline offers, the authors are confident that Northern Gateway could do more than carry Canada’s energy riches to international markets. It could symbolize a new era in business-First Nations-government collaboration in the proper and carefully managed development of this country’s natural resources.

Read the full report, The Way Out: New thinking about Aboriginal engagement and energy infrastructure to the West Coast,

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is the only non-partisan, independent national public policy think tank in Ottawa focusing on the full range of issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

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Readers interested in the issue of tanker safety on Canada’s west coast can get more information from MLI’s in-depth look in “Making Oil & Water Mix: Oil tanker traffic and Canada’s west coast”

For more information on Canada’s natural resource industry, please read MLI’s “Six Myths Surrounding the Development of Canada’s Natural Resources”

Brian Lee Crowley
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