Next week, delegates at the United Church of Canada general council meeting in Ottawa are to debate a resolution that calls on the church to reject construction of the $6-billion Enbridge (TSX:ENB)project that would take diluted bitumen from Alberta to the British Columbia coast.
The resolution was drafted in support of aboriginals in B.C., who worry a spill would poison the land and water, and directs the church to send the results of its vote to the federal, B.C. and Alberta governments and the media.
Mardi Tindal, moderator of the United Church, said care of the Earth is an important part of the faith and the church can't shy away from the pipeline just because it is controversial and politically divisive.
"People care so much about this. People understand that you cannot separate economic health from ecological health," she said from Toronto.
"The church has a responsibility to contribute to the conversations that make for the best public policy for the common good."
The United Church of Canada is not alone.
Earlier this year, the Anglican Bishops of British Columbia and Yukon issued a statement that questioned the integrity of the pipeline's environmental impact review.
The diocese of New Westminster of the Anglican Church of Canada has declared its outright opposition to Northern Gateway, and is looking at excluding Enbridge stock from the diocese's investment portfolio.
A group representing 28 Presbyterian churches in B.C.'s Lower Mainland has written a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that accuses the government of weakening environmental reviews and demonizing people who oppose projects as radicals trying to sabotage Canada's economy.
In her letter to Harper, Rev. Diane Tait-Katerberg wrote there is already "overwhelming evidence the government of Canada has already made up its mind about the safety of these projects, and is arranging things so that nothing stands in the way of the development of the oilsands and the approval of these pipelines."
There is so much buzz about the pipeline in religious circles that the ecumenical justice organization Kairos has written a primer on the Enbridge project entitled Ethical Reflections on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. It's meant to help churches make their own value judgments on the project.
The primer says Northern Gateway presents intersecting challenges for the economy, ecology and Canada's relations with aboriginal people.
It says the focus on the anticipated wealth the pipeline would create threatens to obscure the magnitude of the profound challenges it would pose to the environment.
"In a very immediate way, Northern Gateway threatens the survival of the First Nations whose territory it would cross," the report says.
"A spill would devastate livelihoods, the land, food sources and the ability to pass on to future generations values, principles, languages and core aspects of how these people's cultures are practised."
Kairos member churches include the Anglican Church of Canada, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada.
Ed Bianchi, a Kairos spokesman, said the report is impartial on Northern Gateway.
"I don't think it is a political issue. I think it is an issue that is of concern to our society because it has so many potential impacts on so many people," he said.
Enbridge said it has no problem with churches weighing in with their opinions on Northern Gateway. But the Calgary-based corporation added it is concerned about whether people are basing their opinions on facts.
Enbridge vice-president Janet Harder said the company has been working hard to explain the project to people who live along its 1,200-kilometre route, but hasn't done enough to explain it to the rest of Canada.
Harder said Enbridge plans to release more information this fall about the environmental standards it would have for the pipeline and how the company would protect the ocean from spills. The information could include an advertising campaign in B.C. and Alberta and perhaps the rest of the country.
As well, she said, more facts will come out during the next phase of joint review panel hearings that begin in Edmonton next month. Government and intervener groups will be able to ask Enbridge detailed questions about the project.
Harder is confident people who are saying 'no' to the pipeline now may change their position before the panel wraps up by the end of next year.
"We don't need to win the hearts and minds of people over the next couple of months," she said. "We do have time to communicate and help people understand what this project is all about."
The intervener phase is to run from Sept. 4 to Sept. 28. It is to examine the economic need for the project, how it would be financed and the toll structure it would use.
When the hearings shift to Prince George, B.C., in October, the panel is to hear questions on the environmental effects of the pipeline and Enbridge's plans to deal with accidents and malfunctions.
The final questions phase to be held in Prince Rupert, B.C., in November and December is to look at the potential impacts of the pipeline on aboriginals and the environmental risks of shipping bitumen by super tanker in the waters along the rugged B.C. coast.
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