The tar sands may be visible from space but they have been rendered invisible to the environmental review panel assessing Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline.  That’s an impressive feat, as it ensures that the review panel won’t consider the climate or water impacts of expanding the tar sands, leaving many concerned citizens baffled and disillusioned.

Of course a good magician never reveals his trick. But now, thanks to documents obtained by Greenpeace under Freedom of Information legislation, we have a glimpse of what was going on behind the curtain that led to the head of oil sands policy for the Alberta Ministry of Energy to write: “I think CERI has a death wish to get in the middle of this.  They certainly aren’t doing us any favours!!”

It all started innocuously enough. In July, the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) published a bullish report on the economic benefits that would flow to Alberta (and to a much lesser extent, BC) from building the Gateway pipeline. This was not surprising, as the institute is jointly funded by the government of Alberta, the federal government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – each of which appoint two members to the institute’s nine-member Board of Directors.

Yet in this case, there was a problem – the results were too good. The study showed much higher economic benefits than what the government itself was claiming in its submission to the environmental review panel.

This resulted in an e-mail entitled “Heads-Up on CERI pipeline study” from the Ministry of Energy to the Alberta’s Executive Branch to make sure the premier and cabinet were singing from the same song sheet.

Key portions of the e-mail were deleted before being released on the grounds that they provided confidential advice. They did, however, leave in the bit on why they didn’t think CERI was doing them any favours: “this study is based on a scenario where all oil that would go on Gateway would not be produced without it, so all the base value of the oil and not just the potential uplift are included in Alberta’s benefits. The other studies are based on the oil being produced but sold elsewhere at a discount of some amount, which is what we would expect, and consistent with the evidence we submitted.”

This may sound odd, given all the current hand-wringing over how Alberta’s export pipelines are full and how this is why they need a few new ones through BC.

Even back in August 2011, before the hearings began, Alberta’s Energy Minister was telling reporters “If there was something that kept me up at night, it would be the fear that before too long we’re going to be landlocked in bitumen. We’re not going to be an energy superpower if we can’t get the oil out of Alberta.”

Yet the official position was that without the Northern Gateway pipeline the oil would get to market another way so building the pipeline wouldn’t result in expanded production.

If that doesn’t sound like it makes sense, it’s because it doesn’t make sense. Yet this was a necessary fiction in order to justify limiting the terms of reference for the environmental assessment to the pipeline itself, rather than including the impacts from projects like Shell’s planned new tar sands mines upstream from Fort Chipewyan.

So as the public hearings on the Enbridge pipeline come to a close, ask yourself what they might look like if we faced the truth.

This pipeline will pave the way for new tar sands mines. It will lead to contamination of water in BC and Alberta. It will lock us in to higher greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come, fuelling global warming and climate chaos. And every dollar invested in new tar sands mines and pipelines is a dollar stolen from the green energy economy.

That’s one nasty trick to play on our kids.

Note: This blog originally appeared in The Vancouver Observer.