Acceptable: many approvals of controversial undertakings rest on an obsolete standard marked by an imaginary line.

Author:Gibson, Robert
Position::WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA? - Pipelines for diluted bitumen

DILBIT could be a good name for a goofy dog. Instead it is short for "diluted bitumen," the serious mix of light petroleum diluent and the oily tarry sandy goop that the hydrocarbon industry wants to ship from Northern Alberta to foreign markets.

Unlike bitumen, dilbit flows in pipelines and several new or expanded dilbit pipelines will be built if the industry gets its way. The proposed pipelines--most notably the Northern Gateway and Transmountain pipelines from Alberta to British Columbia's Pacific coast, Line 3 across the prairies, and the Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick and the Atlantic--would facilitate big increases in bitumen extraction, transportation, processing and eventual combustion.

The main attraction is jobs and revenues, presuming the price of oil rises. However, bitumen extraction is already an environmental horror. Spilled pipeline dilbit is a clean-up nightmare, and bringing more bitumen to market is difficult to justify in a country committed to doing its part to prevent climate warming beyond 1.5[degrees]C.

Inevitably, then, proposals for more dilbit pipeline capacity have faced determined opposition.

For much of the past decade, the designated lightning rod for these conflicts has been the beleaguered old National Energy Board (NEB)--an old school regulatory body with a staff of technical experts and a board of appointees sensitive to industry and government concerns.

Formally, the NEB's job is to determine whether each major pipeline proposal "is and will be required by the present and future public convenience and necessity." In practice that has meant judging whether (and under what terms and conditions) each proposed pipeline is acceptable.

The "acceptability" test is a relic from the days when private sector resource exploitation ventures were a mostly unquestioned Good Thing, and just needed to be checked to ensure the engineering was sound and the results would not offend national policy.

In those days it was possible to imagine an identifiable line between unacceptable and acceptable. Technical analyses by specialized experts and close relations with government and the regulated industry could reveal whether or not a proposed project met the accepted standard of established practice.

Unfortunately for the NEB, the imagined line between acceptable and unacceptable has faded. Established practice is now widely associated with imposing local sacrifices, disregarding Aboriginal...

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