What good can possibly come out the tragedy in Lac Megantic, where freight train cars rolled into the small Quebec town and derailed, causing a massive explosion and fire that destroyed half the community's downtown and killed more than 40 people?
Plenty, it appears, for the B.C. Liberal government, the federal government and for Northern Gateway Pipelines.
The spectre of moving Alberta oil by rail through B.C. to Pacific ports for shipping to Asia has always been in the background, ever since Enbridge first pitched its pipeline plan to link northern Alberta to Kitimat. Through community information sessions, the joint review panel hearings and now through a stepped-up advertising campaign, Enbridge has tried to sell British Columbians on the merits of the project, refusing to talk about rail as an option to move the oil across B.C.
Meanwhile, Premier Christy Clark, both before and since the election, has held fast to her five conditions before she'll support the project and a visiting cabinet minister last week told the Citizen that Enbridge is still no closer to meeting those criteria, mirroring the message Clark gave all spring long during the election.
But the election is over and Clark and her Alberta counterpart, Alison Redford, have tasked some of their senior deputy ministers to collaborate on a working group to, as Clark would say, "get to yes." The group is examining all of the issues, from economic benefits, environmental risk, spill clean up and First Nations participation.
This group, however, is not looking at moving the oil across B.C. from a pipeline perspective, nor is it looking at it from a "should we or shouldn't we?" standpoint. Tucked into the 10-page terms of reference for the working group is this statement: "If pipelines are not developed, rail will step into the void to deliver bitumen to the west coast."
In other words, more and more unrefined Alberta oil is going to be moving across B.C., one way or another. The only question is how.
The group, therefore, has been tasked with finding which ways generates "the greatest economic benefits while minimizing environmental risks."
So many opponents of the pipeline seemed ignorant of the fact that they could win the battle and stop Northern Gateway from being built but the war was already over. The rail corridors have already been built and CN only has to answer to the federal government when it comes to the goods it ships and the manner in which it ships it.
The Lac Megantic tragedy allows Clark and the B.C. Liberals a way to openly campaign for the pipeline. She and her ministers can now openly point at Lac Megantic and say carrying Alberta oil through B.C. by rail is too risky so we have no choice but to support a pipeline as the least worst option.
The scenario gets even better for Enbridge and Northern Gateway. Pipelines spill from time to time, they'll say, but they are less risky because they move far more oil with far fewer spills and those spills don't kill people and destroy communities when they happen. Let's work together to reduce the risk on spills and on having a top-notch cleanup response on the off chance it happens, they'll add.
It's best of all for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He can now claim with the utmost sincerity that in the interest of public safety and protecting the environment, the Northern Gateway pipeline will go ahead, once Enbridge meets the requirements set out by the joint review panel.
Northern Gateway was about a pipeline or not but it was never been about oil or no oil. That die had already been cast. The "gateway" for more Alberta oil coming through B.C. on its way to Asia will either be in an underground pipe or in a rail car on wheels.
Even if the pipeline is delayed for years, the oil will still be flowing.