How will Enbridge stem the flow of bad PR?
Crews clean up oil, from a ruptured pipeline, owned by Enbridge Inc, near booms and absorbent materials where Talmadge Creek meets the Kalamazoo River as in Marshall Township, Mich., July 30, 2010. (AP / Paul Sancya)
Published Monday, July 30, 2012 4:30PM EDT
As pipeline leaks go, it was just a gooey puddle and barely worth a news brief.
But the spillover effect of losing six minutes worth of piped oil from its Chicago line has unleashed a gusher of bad publicity for Enbridge at the worst possible time.
The 158,000 litres of light crude turned a Wisconsin farmer’s field into a black mess, which was easily cleaned up leaving behind no significant environmental damage.
Yet media attention on Enbridge has amplified into a frenzy courtesy of its Northern Gateway proposal, a $6-billion pipeline to the west coast now turning the Great Divide into a political as well as geographical watershed between Alberta and B.C.
Premier Christy Clark may have thrown a Hail Mary pass when she demanded a piece of royalty action from Alberta as B.C.’s toll for the pipeline’s unopposed passage, but it’s not without local voter appeal and seems likely to revive a premier whose re-election prospects appeared palliative.
Meanwhile, federal government heavyweights are increasingly weary of carrying the Northern Gateway crusade solo, complaining to me privately that the media-shy company has done a lousy job of spinning its story while leaving difficult public relations to cabinet ministers.
They’re right. Enbridge may have fine lobbyists, but they don’t know how to extol the long-term benefits to Canada of a competitive market for oil exports. Specifically, they haven’t highlighted how U.S. refineries rip off Canada by heavily discounting bitumen product which could attract world prices on the west coast.
Without a long-term positive image to offset the operational risk of being a pipeline company with an iffy track record -- the NTSB likened Enbridge to “keystone cops” for its handling of the Michigan spill of 2010, for example -- minor incidents will simply enhance public opposition and inflame political hostilities.
And it won’t stay inside the domestic arena. In the U.S., Democratic Representative Ed Markey has invoked the far-fetched comparison of Enbridge’s leaks to BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s not without like-minded friends in the House.
Even with the federal government accelerating Gateway’s hearings, limiting hostile environmental witnesses and suggesting they will overrule any no-go recommendation from the review panel, the Northern Gateway pipeline appears in serious trouble.
Aboriginal opposition will continue to grow and they won’t accept an unwelcome pipeline traversing their territory without resistance. An all-party pile-on against Alberta getting the revenue while B.C. gets the risk will dominate the B.C. campaign trail next spring. And questions will linger about the pipeline’s viability when there’s a more economical route to Vancouver along the existing southern Trans Mountain pipeline.
Enbridge finds itself trapped in a vicious circle. Small spills will become big news which will feed public opposition and attract even closer scrutiny.
Every leaked trickle from now on will cause a major hemorrhage to Enbridge’s corporate credibility. Size, in the case of pipeline spills, no longer matters.