By pitting oil by rail against pipeline projects, provincial governments in B.C. and Alberta are trying to shift the debate away from if more oilsands products should be shipped off the north coast to how it will be done, according to a group opposed to the idea.
In the terms of reference to an inter provincial working group released this week, senior bureaucrats from the B.C. and Alberta governments indicated they will be weighing which means of transport provide the most economic benefit with the least environmental risk, but they indicated the oil will move west somehow.
"I was surprised that they're positioning this as a question whether northern B.C. is going to accept having oil transported by rail or pipeline when the bigger question is whether B.C. is comfortable with risking our watershed and coast for the sake of becoming an oil corridor," Sea to Sands Conservation Alliance spokeswoman Sonja Ostertag said.
Created to oppose the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project, Sea to Sands is worried about the effects of a possible spill of bitumen and what it would mean to northern B.C.'s ecosystem.
The terms of reference mentioned the need for a social license for any responsible development, but Ostertag said her group believes that hasn't been granted.
"Our government doesn't seem to be listening," she said. "Northern British Columbians, First Nations and non-First Nations communities are asking for sustainable development and are asking for their voices to be heard and their concerns to be recognized."
The working group, which will report to B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Alberta Premier Alison Redford by the end of the year, must determine how best to ship the bitumen and how to deal with other concerns the B.C. government has raised - including getting what it perceives as an appropriate economic benefit and ensuring First Nations are adequately consulted.
"This is the next stage of the Clark's government's pursuit of their five conditions," UBC political scientist George Hoberg said. "It's not surprising that it's come out this way given how big a shift there's already been in the tone that Clark and Redford have had with each other, it's just putting that material on paper."
Hoberg noted that the terms of reference are a significant departure from the strong opposition the province showed towards Northern Gateway during the final argument phase of the federal environmental assessment process in June.
In the interim, Clark has signaled that progress has been made in discussions with her Alberta counterpart, but Environmental Minister Mary Polak said nothing has changed on the province's position on Northern Gateway.
"I think Clark and Redford are trying to move away from the discussion of specific projects - which they've found to be quite toxic - to talking about more general principles," Hoberg said.
Hoberg is skeptical that Clark and Redford's approach will work because of the continued opposition to oil transport in B.C. - especially in the marine environment. Regardless of how the oil gets to the coast - by rail or by pipeline - it will still need to be loaded onto tankers and shipped to Asia.
"It seems to be intent on creating the sense of inevitability which appears designed to frustrate and undermine the resistance to these projects," Hoberg said.
UNBC political science professor Jason Morris said the working groups adds another layer of complexity onto an issue that has already been extensively studied.
"The trend in governance is broad consultation, but eventually decisions have to be made," he said. "People on either side of the debate may start to get a little annoyed or even cynical about all this discussion going on."
Both Hoberg and Morris agree that the provincial working group would be more effective if the federal government was also involved. Many of the issues on the table, from rail and pipeline regulations to marine safety and First Nations issues fall under federal jurisdiction.
"I always find it shocking the federal government is so hands off on these issues when they have the core jurisdiction over all the major questions," he said. "They want to seem to let the two provinces deal with the issues. That's very Canadian but I don't think it's very constructive."