The Canadian government's approval of the Northern Gateway Pipeline doesn't mean the project will get built anytime soon. Regulatory and legal fights will cause many years of delay. But the approval has several key meanings that are not well understood:
China. As I've written here before, the Northern Gateway is the unadulterated China export play for the tar sands. There's nothing ambiguous about it. Every last drop of crude will be exported, primarily to the greenhouse-gas-churning industrial dystopias of east Asia. The Keystone XL, on the other hand, is a much fuzzier picture -- the crude it transports would displace imports of heavy oil from Mexico and Venezuela, then it would be refined in the U.S. Gulf Coast, then part of the gasoline and other products would be consumed domestically while the rest would be exported, primarily to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
Indigenous rights. The Northern Gateway is likely to become the world's most prominent test case of the rights of indigenous peoples to decide the fate of resource extraction projects in their ancestral homelands. British Columbia's Coastal First Nations responded immediately to the pipeline approval by announcing their opposition. They are expected to file lawsuits to challenge the approval, and the case is likely to wind up in the Supreme Court in Ottawa several years from now. If the First Nations don't prevail there, they could well take the case to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. At that court, the case would clarify the precedent of the 2012 Sarayaku ruling, which somewhat ambiguously reaffirmed the rights of indigenous people to "free, prior and informed consent" as established in ILO Convention No. 169 and in the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples -- which Canada has somewhat ambiguously approved.
Great Bear Rainforest. The controversy over the Northern Gateway is just the latest in a 15-year-old struggle to save the central B.C. coastal ecosystem, which environmentalists have dubbed the Great Bear Rainforest. It's a majestic region of 200-foot-tall Sitka spruce, red cedar, western hemlock and Douglas fir, with glaciated peaks above and deep fjords below -- all of it threatened by large-scale logging and other development.
In 2009, an agreement between environmentalists and the provincial government put a third of the Great Bear off-limits to logging and the rest under a mixed bag of management in which some logging is permitted. But that timber war has now been replaced with a tanker war. If the Northern Gateway pipeline is built, hundreds of tankers per year will be plying the region's fjords, which for much of the year are wrapped in thick fog and buffeted by storms from the North Pacific. If a major spill were to happen in the area, the damage to the pristine ecosystem would be severe.
All of the above constitute powerful reasons why the Northern Gateway just shouldn't be built. This logic has nothing to do with the Keystone XL or the tar sands per se. Instead, the Northern Gateway is much like oil drilling in the Arctic -- the B.C. rainforest is an ecosystem that should be protected, full stop. There are plenty of other places that are much more appropriate for the oil and gas business. Just not the B.C. coast. It's too precious, too fragile, too glorious, too unique.