Canada’s federal government has conditionally approved a controversial $7.9 billion pipeline that would pump tar sands crude from the land-locked province of Alberta to the nation’s west coast. There, in British Columbia, it would be funneled by a fleet oil tankers through a rocky fjord, out to sea, and eventually to Asian markets. 
But here’s the thing. There’s been a moratorium on oil tankers in that region for decades. British Columbia prides itself on being environmentally progressive. As such, the public, First Nations, and local governments are by and large staunchly opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. 
“Kitimat Terrace. Prince Rupert. Smithers. They all say no,” National Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair said in parliament, accusing Prime Minister Stephen Harper of steamrolling the opposition and ignoring evidence highlighting the dangers the pipeline poses. “Over 130 First Nations across BC? They all say no. Three-hundred scientists? They all say no. The prime minister endorsed this pipeline publicly three years ago. No matter what evidence, how many people speak out, how many people stand up against him, he keeps pushing this project.”
The Northern Gateway, which the Harper government cleared for approval after four years of deliberation, must meet 209 safety conditions recommended by the National Energy Board, and complete talks with First Nation communities all along the proposed corridor. And the Gitxaala and Coastal First Nations in BC have already filed lawsuits opposing the pipeline. Furthermore, BC Premier Christy Clark can prohibit licensing and approvals for construction. Clark has said the pipeline needs to satisfy five conditions for it to be approved by the BC provincial government—and so far, it hasn’t.
In other words, British Columbians of just about every stripe oppose this pipeline, and plan on contesting it at every turn. Even other leading politicians see the pipeline as a toxic prospect—Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who currently leads popular polls as the man best suited to be the next prime minister, said he would kill the project. 
“If I win the honour of serving as Prime Minister, the Northern Gateway pipeline will not happen,” said Trudeau in the halls of the House of Commons. Trudeau even began a national online petition against Northern Gateway, which is already attracting over 3000 signatures.
And there’s primarily one reason for that, and it’s not that Trudeau cares deeply about the environment. It’s that the pipeline is going to be so vastly difficult to get built—it’s going to inspire spirited opposition, a raft of lawsuits, and, if it comes down to it, civil disobedience. The pipeline puts at risk scores of First Nations’ homelands, pristine rainforest, and a rocky waterway used extensively for fishing, to name a few.
Kitimat, the port town where Northern Gateway would end up. Image: Wikimedia
Nearby Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest city, also prides itself on being one of the world’s greenest. The prospect of building a giant oil pipeline to empty near its port strikes many leaders there not just as a terrible idea, but outright preposterous. The weekend before the announcement came, I was at a conference outside Vancouver put on by the Social Change Institute, which is attended by top civic and environmental leaders. All of the impressive reductions in CO2 emissions Vancouver has made—the city boasts one of the world’s only carbon taxes—were at risk of being nullified.
“All those emissions cuts would be wiped out by this one pipeline,” city councilor Andrea Reimer said. Which is not to say anyone was overly worried about it. 
“This pipeline will not get built,” Tim Gray, the executive director of Environment Defence, said. He cited the surefire lawsuits, the inevitable delays, and the overwhelming opposition. It’s not just environmentalists who are optimistic about the prospect: legal analysts and journalists took that tack, too. Metro News Canada proclaims that it will be “Years till Northern Gateway pipeline built, if ever.”
BC’s Yinka Dene Alliance has put out a call for civil disobedience on its Hold the Wall website—and at the time of writing, 23,000 people had pledged to stand with them. If all of those people turned out to stand up against the pipeline, it would be the largest act of civil disobedience in Canada’s history.
Many feel that Harper, spurred on by the $400 billion China-Russia natural gas deal, has overreached in his ambitions to bring the crude to market.
“Harper conservatives have created a perfect storm,” said Tzeporah Berman, a leading Canadian environmentalist and co-founder of Forest Ethics. “It’s not just climate campaigners. It’s civil rights activists, democracy activists and scientists in lab coats,” coming out to fight the pipeline. “In Harper’s desperate push to get this pipeline approved they’ve refused to allow citizens you go to these community meetings,” she said. “Now, there are lawyers and scientists showing up.”
In early June, 300 of Canada’s top research scientists signed a petition denouncing Harper’s planned approval, urging Harper to consider the extent of the environmental disaster the pipeline could cause. They argued that the federal Joint Review Panel report, which recommended the pipeline’s approval last December, was systemically flawed.
“The Joint Review Panel’s (JRP) assessment of the Northern Gateway Project represents a flawed analysis of the risks and benefits to British Columbia’s environment and society,” the letter said. “We urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject this report.”
But perhaps the strongest possible terms belong to those who stand to see their land, and their home, despoiled by an oil spill, which are all the more frequent in the age of the tar sands.
“I will be dead before that pipeline gets built,” Jessy Housty, a Heiltsuk First Nations councilwoman from Bella Bella, which is right in the tankers’ proposed trajectory, told me. “I hope that’s later rather than sooner, obviously. But I would die fighting it.”
Ben Makuch contributed reporting.