Phil Germuth, Enbridge’s “What the….” moment and what it means for British Columbia

Phil Germuth
Councillor Phil Germuth questions Northern Gateway officials about their plans for leak detection, Feb. 17, 2014 (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

Enbridge Northern Gateway officials are loath (to put it mildly) to speak to the media but sometimes they let things slip. Earlier this summer, at a social event, I heard an Enbridge official (probably inadvertently) reveal that when the company’s engineers came before District of Kitimat Council earlier this year they were surprised and somewhat unprepared to fully answer the detailed technical questions from Councillor Phil Germuth on pipeline leak detection.

In January, 2015, Phil Germuth will take the centre chair as mayor at the Kitimat Council Chambers.

The results of the municipal election in Kitimat, and elsewhere across BC show one clear message; voters do want industrial development in their communities, but not at any price. Communities are no longer prepared to be drive by casualties for giant corporations on their road to shareholder value.

The federal Conservatives and the BC provincial Liberals have, up until now, successfully used the “all or nothing thinking” argument. That argument is: You either accept everything a project proponent wants, whether in the mining or energy sectors,  or you are against all development. Psychologists will tell you that “all or nothing thinking” only leads to personal defeat and depression. In politics, especially in an age of attack ads and polarization, the all or nothing thinking strategy often works. Saturday’s results, however, show that at least at the municipal level,  the all or nothing argument is a political loser. Where “all politics is local” the majority of people are aware of the details of the issues and reject black and white thinking.

Ray Philpenko
Northern Gateway’s Ray Philpenko gives a presentation on pipeline leak detection to Kitimat Council, Feb. 17. 2014. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

The Enbridge official went on to say that for their company observers, Germuth’s questions were a “what the…..” moment.  As in “what the …..” is this small town councillor doing challenging our expertise?

But then Enbridge (and the other pipeline companies) have always tended to under estimate the intelligence of people who live along the route of proposed projects whether in British Columbia or elsewhere in North America, preferring to either ignore or demonize opponents and to lump skeptics into the opponent camp. The Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel also lost credibility when it accepted most of Northern Gateway’s arguments at face value while saying “what the ……” do these amateurs living along the pipeline route know?

Pro Development

“I am pro-development,” Germuth proclaimed to reporters in Kitimat on Saturday night after his landslide victory in his campaign for mayor.

On the issue of leak detection, over a period of two years, Germuth did his homework, checked his facts and looked for the best technology on leak detection for pipelines. That’s a crucial issue here where pipelines cross hundreds of kilometres of wilderness and there just aren’t the people around to notice something is amiss (as the people of Marshall, Michigan wondered at the time of the Line 6B breach back in 2010). Enbridge should have been prepared; Germuth first raised public questions about leak detection at a public forum in August 2012. In February 2014, after another eighteen months of research, he was ready to cross-examine, as much as possible under council rules of procedure. Enbridge fumbled the answers.

So that’s the kind of politician that will be mayor of Kitimat for the next four years, technically astute, pro-development but skeptical of corporate promises and determined to protect the environment.

Across the province, despite obstacles to opposition set up by the federal and provincial governments, proponents are now in for a tougher time (something that some companies will actually welcome since it raises the standards for development).

We see similar results in key votes in British Columbia. In Vancouver, Gregor Roberston, despite some problems with policies in some neighborhoods, won re-election on his green and anti-tankers platform. In Burnaby, Derek Corrigan handily won re-election and has already repeated his determination to stop the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline through his town. In Prince Rupert, Lee Brain defeated incumbent Jack Musselman. Brain, who has on the ground experience working at an oil refinery in India, supports LNG development but has also been vocal in his opposition to Northern Gateway.

The new mayor in Terrace Carol Leclerc is an unknown factor, a former candidate for the BC Liberal party, who campaigned mainly on local issues. In the Terrace debate she refused to be pinned down on whether or not she supported Northern Gateway, saying,  “Do I see Enbridge going ahead? Not a hope,” but later adding, “I’d go with a pipeline before I’d go with a rail car.”


election signs
Kitimat election signs. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

Plebiscite confirmed

Kitimat’s mayor and council elections also confirm that Northern Gateway plebiscite vote last April. Kitimat wants industrial development but not at the price of the community and the environment. The unofficial pro-development slate lost. A last minute attempt to smear Germuth on social media was quickly shot down by people from all sides of the Kitimat debate. Smears don’t usually work in small towns where everyone knows everyone.

Larry Walker, an environmentalist with a track record in municipal politics as an alderman in Spruce Grove, Alberta, won a seat. Together with Rob Goffinet and Germuth, that is three solid votes for the environment. The other new councillor is Claire Rattee who will be one to watch. Will the rookie be the swing vote as Corinne Scott was?

Mario Feldhoff who came to third to Goffinet in the overall vote (Edwin Empinado was second) is a solid councillor with a strong reputation for doing his homework and attention to detail and the unofficial leader of the side more inclined to support development. Feldhoff got votes from all sides in the community.

During the debates, Feldhoff repeated his position that he supports David Black’s Kitimat Clean refinery. But as an accountant, Feldhoff will have to realize that Black’s plan, which many commentators say was economically doubtful with oil at $110 a barrel, is impractical with oil at $78 a barrel for Brent Crude and expected to fall farther. Any idea of a refinery bringing jobs to Kitimat will have to be put on hold for now.

LNG projects are also dependent on the volatility and uncertainty in the marketplace. The companies involved keep postponing the all important Final Investment Decisions.

There are also Kitimat specific issues to deal with. What happens to the airshed, now and in the future? Access to the ocean remains a big issue. RTA’s gift of land on Minette Bay is a step in the right direction, but while estuary land is great for camping, canoeing and nature lovers, it is not a beach. There is still the need for a well-managed marina and boat launch that will be open and available to everyone in the valley.

Germuth will have to unite a sometimes contentious council to ensure Kitimat’s future prosperity without giving up the skepticism necessary when corporations sit on a table facing council on a Monday night, trying to sell their latest projects. That all means that Germuth has his job cut out for him over the next four years.

Kitimat Council votes 4 to 1 to oppose Enbridge Northern Gateway

Kitimat Council vote
Four members of District of Kitimat Council voted April 22 to uphold the town plebiscite and oppose Enbridge Northern Gateway. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

District of Kitimat Council voted four to one Monday night to officially oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline, terminal and tanker project.

After a lengthy debate, Mayor Joanne Monaghan, Councillors Phil Germuth, Mario Feldhoff and Rob Goffinet voted in favour of the motion. Councillor Edwin Empinado voted against the motion. Councillors Mary Murphy and Corrine Scott were absent due to illness.

Part of the debate was a search for unanimity and that meant simplifying the original motion from Phil Germuth, eliminating references to the Haisla Nation and “neighboring communities,” largely at the insistence of Mayor Monaghan.

Germuth’s original motion read:

That Mayor and Council support the results of the April 12th plebiscite, the Haisla and our neighboring communities by adopting a position of being opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.

What passed is:

That Mayor and Council support the results of the April 12th plebiscite by adopting a position of being opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.

Council was in a search for unanimity, so Germuth eventually agreed to a friendly amendment that eliminated the references to neighboring communities. Mayor Monaghan, in the debate, said that Germuth’s full motion was against the spirit of the plebiscite, which she argued was just for Kitimat.

In opening the debate, Germuth specifically told council that it was time for Kitimat to join and support both the Haisla Nation and neighboring communities Terrace, Prince Rupert and Smithers which had earlier voted to oppose the Northern Gateway project.

Germuth noted that Kitimat is an industrial town and does support industrial projects but for him and the people who voted against the project, Enbridge Northern Gateway is the wrong project.

Mario Feldhoff, who earlier in the year had said he supported Northern Gateway, told council that with the plebiscite result, it was time for council to support the will of the majority of Kitimat residents. Feldhoff went on to say that he had reservations about rejecting Gateway. He added that he hoped that newspaper magnate David Black’s plan for a refinery at Onion Flats outside Kitimat would bring thousands of jobs to the region.

Rob Goffinet
At one point during the lengthy debate, Councillor Rob Goffinet sat back and buried his head in hands. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

Rob Goffinet pointed out residents of Kitimat, if anyone, were experts on the Northern Gateway, after five years of presentations before council from Enbridge Northern Gateway, from Douglas Channel Watch and others. He said that Kitimatians also had the opportunity to read the full report from the Joint Review Panel. Overall, Goffinet said he was in “favour of certain industrial development,” but Northern Gateway failed the test. He called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to respect the decision by the people of Kitimat.

Edwin Empinado asked council to consider five questions, mainly about potential changes in the future for scientific and technical advances. Empinado also worried that saying no to Northern Gateway was beyond the powers of a municipality. He said he would vote against the motion because he preferred council to remain neutral.

Monaghan said she was having difficulty with Germuth’s motion because she felt that it went further than what Kitimat had voted for. She also said she supports the David Black refinery, believing that it would bring much need jobs to the region.

At the point it looked as the motion would pass three to two and council struggled to find a compromise. Feldhoff suggested an amendment dropping the references to the Haisla and neighbors. Goffinet pointed out that if the simplified motion passed, Kitimat would be joining the Haisla, Terrace, Prince Rupert and Smithers anyway. Germuth then agreed to make the amendment “friendly.”

Empinado maintained his position against the motion, saying that the motion would not allow the council to make changes in the future. Empinado stuck by his position that there must be scientific rigour applied to the Northern Gateway issue and his belief that the motion did not allow for future changes.

Feldhoff then said there was nothing in the motion that precluded council for re-examining the issue in the future.

Monaghan then called the motion and it passed with Empinado’s dissenting vote.

Both Feldhoff and Monaghan said that they had been approached by people who did not vote but who were in favour of Northern Gateway. Feldhoff said he hoped that would be a lesson for those who do not turn out at the polls.

Monaghan had opened the debate by asking that it be tabled until Councillors Scott and Murphy could be present. That motion was defeated 4 to 1.