Northern Gateway: Canada’s Other Tar Sands Pipeline Project

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Enbridge, the Canadian pipeline company, seeks to build a 730-mile pipeline, spanning approximately 800 waterways across the Rockies and Coast mountain ranges and through British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, in order to transport a form of oil known as bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands to the port of Kitimat.  From Kitimat, supertankers would ship the oil through the notoriously treacherous Douglas Channel to Asian markets.   First Nations communities along the British Columbian coast, conservation organizations, and environmentalists oppose Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline on grounds that it poses catastrophic environmental risks and overruns First Nations communities’ control of their own lands.

Similar to more publicized Keystone XL pipeline, the Northern Gateway Pipeline would transport bitumen, a heavy and viscous form of crude oil.  For transport, bitumen must be diluted with benzene, naphtha, hydrogen sulfide, and other toxic chemicals.   The environmental risks include the potential for earthquakes shattering the pipeline and tanker spills in the narrow, perilous Douglas Channel.

In October 2012, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), putting the entire Pacific Northwest on tsunami alert.  Although the region is Canada’s most earthquake-prone zone, at a public hearing that month, Enbridge officials revealed that they would not have a spill-response plan until six months before the proposed pipeline would begin operation.

In August, Enbridge released a video of the proposed route for the Northern Gateway project that depicted the crowded Douglas Channel as a wide-open thoroughfare to the Pacific Ocean.  The Enbridge video omitted nearly 380 square miles of islands in the channel that tankers would have to navigate to transport the bitumen.

Enbridge has offered to share ten percent of the project’s profits—a projected $280 million—with First Nations communities.  But, according to Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, professor of Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria, this “assumes that First Nations lands are for sale and access to Native communities is a right.  It disregards any notions that First Nations have any control over their own territory.”   Coastal First Nations, an alliance of First Nations on British Columbia’s North and Central Coast and Haida Gwai, say that risk assessments by Enbridge and the federal government are flawed, and that First Nation people would be disproportionately harmed by any tanker spill along the coast.

Enbridge’s safety record raises concerns.  In July 2010, a ruptured Enbridge pipeline spilled over 843,000 gallons of diluted bitumen into a tributary of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.  The US National Transportation Safety Board revealed mismanagement by Enbridge and described the disaster as “tragic and needless.”  Remediation efforts along the Kalamazoo have decimated the local ecology.   The Polaris Institute calculated that Enbridge has had 804 spills between 1999 and 2010.

A Joint Review Panel will hold ten weeks of public hearings between February and May of 2013 before releasing its report and recommendations in December 2013.

As of November 2012, the Los Angeles Times appears to be the only US corporate media to have covered this story, having run two reports on the proposed pipeline in February.


Carol Linnitt, “Supertankers, Earthquakes, and Tsunamis, Oh My: Enbridge Has No Spill-Response Plan for Northern Gateway Pipeline,”, October 30, 2012,

Caitlin McKay, “First Nations Flex their Pipes against Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline,” Arbitrage Magazine, November 18, 2012,

Heather Libby, “Enbridge video ‘erases’ islands in the way of the Northern Gateway pipeline,” Tck Tck Tck, August 16, 2012,

Christina N. Service, et al. “Pipelines and Parks: Evaluating External Risks to Protected Areas from the Proposed Northern Gateway Oil Transport Project,” Natural Areas Journal, v. 32, n. 4 (October 2012),

Carol Linnitt, “Enbridge Mismanagement Caused Kalamazoo Tragedy, Says NTSB,”, July 13, 2012,

Faculty Researcher & Evaluator:  Andy Lee Roth (Sonoma State University)