Supreme Court ruling and future of oil sands

Last week’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada declaring that aboriginal land titles go beyond the limits

Last week’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada declaring that aboriginal land titles go beyond the limits sets by treaties and cover all areas where First Nations actively maintain their living is likely to be one of the most important milestones in the process through which the indigenous people of these territories will gain more recognition and have their economic rights restored.

The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court makes it compulsory for any economic project in the territories in question to go ahead only after consultation with and the consent of the aboriginal peoples living there.

“It goes from mountaintop to mountaintop in some places. It covers valleys and vast tracts of land. That is now what aboriginal title is,” one lawyer involved in the case was quoted in the national media as saying.

The timing of the ruling comes in a particularly sensitive time, just days after the federal government gave the green light for the construction of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which is expected to carry up to half a million barrels of bitumen per day from oils sands of northern Alberta to a Pacific Ocean port on the coast of B.C.

The federal government didn’t hide its irritation with the decision by issuing a ministerial statement that the Supreme Court’s ruling was being reviewed.

Undoubtedly, the new situation will make it even harder for the business-side stakeholders of the whole Northern Gateway project to proceed with the speed they were dreaming of in implementing their construction plans.

The federal government had already declared that it was giving the green light to the project on condition that the 209 conditions stipulated by the National Energy Board would have to be fulfilled before the completion of the project.

It now remains to be seen whether Enbridge, the company pushing for the pipeline project will review its position and perhaps call off the idea totally.

But in realistic terms, one has to agree that, one way or the other, the bitumen in northern Alberta will be exploited to serve the needs of energy-hungry nations, foremost among them China, which has already invested billions of dollars in the oil sands projects.

Although the US has just announced that it has lifted the ban on the export of crude oil produced in the country after a 41-year prohibition, the oil boom in our southern neighbour that stems from the extensive use of fracking technology may not last long and the threat it poses to Canada’s oil exports should not be very serious; which means, from a strategic standpoint, the demand for the Athabasca bitumen will continue to be there.

Now the question is how to do that in a way that serves the interests of all parties involved.

Because transporting the bitumen by rail will continue to pose huge environmental risks, and as Enbridge claims its new technology will be the safest around, it looks like the Northern Gateway is an acceptable option.

But in order to go with that option, all parties involved must ensure that not only the transport, but also the production of bitumen must be designed to the satisfaction of all parties involved, most of all the First Nations inhabiting the Athabasca area.

In this age of knowledge and technology, it shouldn’t be an undeliverable task to develop environment friendly methods of extracting bitumen, but it is certainly a matter of political will to set the guidelines for that and of spending the money to develop and use those cleaner technologies.

– Mustafa Eric