Fresh off its win helping delay the Keystone XL oil pipeline in the United States, the Natural Resources Defense Council is directing its star-studded cast against the $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline.
The U.S.-based environmental group, which raised $94 million in 2010, will bring its expertise and 1.3 million members to an already-formidable array of largely B.C.-based environmental groups actively campaigning to stop the controversial project.
It will also bring a new element -- celebrity power.
The defence council counts among its directors actors Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Its senior lawyer is Robert Kennedy Jr.
Redford has already written publicly about his concerns regarding the Northern Gateway pipeline.
And when the defence council wanted to educate its members about the Northern Gateway project, actor Kevin Bacon narrated a short video about it.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) international program director Susan Casey-Lefkowitz said the group has entered the Northern Gateway campaign because delaying the Keystone XL project means there will be even more pressure on the Northern Gateway pipeline to proceed.
U.S. President Barack Obama postponed a decision on the $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline until 2013, pending further environmental review.
The Republicans have tried to force an earlier decision, but Obama has said there is not enough time for a review, which could cancel the project.
Environmental opponents wanted the 2,700-kilometre Keystone XL pipeline halted because it would deliver so-called “dirty oil” from the Alberta oilsands to the U.S., and also over concerns a spill would harm a major water aquifer in Nebraska.
Casey-Lefkowitz said the Northern Gateway pipeline and tankers threaten a beautiful landscape, the spirit bear (rare white black bear) and the greatest fishing rivers in the world.
The 1,172-kilometre Northern Gateway pipeline is meant to open up new markets for Alberta oilsands’ bitumen in Asia.
A second, smaller pipeline would transport condensate -- a kerosene-like liquid used to thin bitumen for transport in pipelines -- from the coast back to the Alberta oilsands.
“These are all things of global interest,” said Casey-Lefkowitz, who is based in Washington, D.C. “We are bringing an international community that cares very much about the B.C. coast.”
The NRDC is no stranger to environmental battles in B.C., having pushed to protect areas along the central and north coast now known as the Great Bear Rain Forest.
In November, the NRDC partnered with the Calgary-based Pembina Institute and B.C.-based Living Oceans Society to release a report that argues bitumen from the oilsands is more corrosive and heavier than conventional oil, making a pipeline failure or tanker leak more likely.
Calgary-based Enbridge has said it will build and operate the Northern Gateway pipeline to the highest safety standards.
The NRDC’s members have also sent 60,000 emails opposing the project to B.C. Premier Christy Clark, and another 40,000 to Enbridge president and CEO Patrick Daniel.
The mostly B.C.-based environmental groups have already been fighting the proposed Enbridge pipeline for years.
There are about a dozen such groups, including the Dogwood Initiative, ForestEthics (with offices in B.C. and the U.S.), West Coast Environmental Law, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation.
All have similar concerns: the risk and the potential catastrophic effects of a pipeline or tanker spill on the environment and communities; and the expansion of the Alberta oilsands and increases in greenhouse gas emissions.
The Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative has an active campaign to halt the project.
Recently it ran a campaign that helped sign up 1,600 people to testify at the National Energy Board’s regulatory hearings that begin Jan. 10 in Kitimat.
Although the Dogwood group says the decision on Northern Gateway should be made by British Columbians, it has no problem with the addition of the American-based NRDC to the campaign. “The more attention that can be placed on this issue, the better,” said Dogwood Initiative official Eric Swanson, who heads the group’s no-tanker campaign.
“We all share the planet, and we share the Pacific coast with many others,” he added.
In Alberta, the environmental opposition against the pipeline does not have as many voices as it does in British Columbia.
And groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Pembina Institute have focused their opposition on the oilsands.
The Pembina Institute, which advocates transitioning away from a fossil-fuel economy, has called for a halt in developing Northern Gateway until the upstream effects of the oilsands are addressed.
While Pembina is concerned about the risks of the Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker spills, its main concerns are over oilsands tailings seepage, industrial air emissions, greenhouse gas emissions and reclamation of wetlands.
“Our perspective is that oilsands development could proceed responsibly if it was being developed in accordance with science-based environmental limits,” said Jennifer Grant, director of Pembina’s oilsands program.
“[But] limits on oilsands development are not being addressed,” she said.
The fight against the Northern Gateway project is also being carried out by a coterie of recently created, locally based groups in northern B.C.
Those include the Sea to Sands Conservation Alliance in Prince George, the Douglas Channel Watch in Kitimat, Lakes District Clean Waters Coalition in Burns Lake and the Fort St. James Sustainability Group.
Some of the homegrown groups, which operate on shoestring budgets, are using social media to get their message out.
The Sea to Sands Conservation Alliance has more than 900 members on its Facebook site.
The Douglas Channel Watch has more than 550 fans.
Margaret Stenson, a representative of the Douglas Channel Watch, said the group started after like-minded friends starting talking to each other.
Now, about a dozen to 20 people attend its meetings, which have increased in frequency to once or twice a week in preparation for the regulatory hearings.
“I think we have a lot of support, but there are a lot of people who haven’t found out that much about [the Northern Gateway project],” Stenson said.
“You think they would. Our Douglas Channel is so important to us. And the Kitimat River is our drinking water, and this pipeline goes about 70 kilometres, I believe, along the river.”