Government’s latest trick: The disappearing offshore tanker moratorium

Becoming Prime Minister of Canada gives one a lot of power, but I didn’t know it could turn a somewhat bookish policy wonk like StephenHarper into one of the world’s greatest magicians.

But if he succeeds in disappearing a 34-year old moratorium banning oil tankers in BC’s fragile northern inside coastal waters his conjuring will certainly rival David Copperfield’s illusions in a TV special.

To give them credit, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party has been doing some world-class conjuring of late:

  • First, in the amount of time it takes to snap ones fingers, they cancelled the $5 billion in funding for First Nations initiatives(the Kelowna Accord) from the federal budget.
  • Then, over the past few months they have been slowly eradicating programs (like EnerGuide) designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and turn back climate change.
  • Under their guidance, Canada’s support of the Kyoto Accord is vanishing behind vague promises of future(in)actions.

Now, the federal government under Mr. Harper is attempting to make the 34-year old moratorium banning fossil fuel tankers from transporting oil and gas through BC’s inside passage disappear like the infamous three-card monty card trick.

A nice conjuring trick, particularly if you slide it by British Columbians who overwelmingly oppose removing the tanker ban.

Despite numerous public references by government officials,commissions and bureaucrats over the last three decades, under the Conservative government  Transport Canada is now saying no tanker moratorium exists and “what we actually have is a voluntary exclusion zone that keeps crude-oil tankers out of those waters as they travel between Alaska and the continental U.S. The prohibition doesn’t apply to such ships using northern B.C. ports.”

Like three-card monty, or the ancient shell game, Mr. Harper’s government is trying to draw your attention one way while the action happens just out of sight.

The Transport Canada spokesperson quoted above is partially correct;there is a voluntary “Tanker Exclusion Zone” which prohibits Alaskan tankers in designated BC waters.

They may have lost the paperwork, but there is also a separate and distinct moratorium on tankers in the inside passage that was imposed in1972.

Evidence of the moratorium is everywhere. The tanker moratorium has been referenced in thousands of news stories over the decades,in hundreds of public statements by politicians.

In fact, over the past few years, pre-Harper governments were sufficiently convinced of the existence of the tanker moratorium that they convened three separate high-profile panels, all with terms of reference that posited a moratorium.

Each of these panels acted as if, and reported as if, a moratorium on tanker traffic and drilling, was in place.

The panels were:

  1. the Royal Society of Canada Science Panel,
  2. a public consultation process (the Priddle Panel chaired by Roland Priddle); and
  3. a First Nations consultation process (chaired by Cheryl Brooks)

The recent about face by the Conservative government is illustrated by the terms of reference for these panels, written by the same federal agencies now denying the moratorium, which included specific references to a tanker moratorium.

For example, TheRoyal Society terms of reference says:

“The Government of BC imposed a moratorium on offshore exploration drilling during 1959-1966. In 1972 the Government of Canada imposed a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic through Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sounddue to concerns over potential environmental impacts. The moratorium was subsequently extended to include all oil and gas activities. This was followed in 1981 by a similar prohibition by the Government of British Columbia. The Panel notes that the moratoria apply only to commercial activities: seabed geological exploration and regional seismic studies by academic and government researchers have continued (subject to formal permitting).”

The Priddle Panel and First Nations panel had the same background info:

“In 1972, the Government of Canada imposed a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic through Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait,and Queen Charlotte Sound due to concerns over the potential environmental impacts. The moratorium was subsequently extended to include oil and gas activities. This was followed by a similar prohibition by the Government of British Columbia.”

Note that the language of the terms of reference for the panels – “moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic through Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound.”  – applies to any tanker traffic, without reference to its origin or destination. They don’t suggest that the moratorium only applies to ships that are loaded withAlaskan crude, that are heading south to Cherry Point or California.

To casual observers it is difficult to tell the difference between a classic magic trick and the short con (confidence trick) known as the shell game where the pee never appears under the shell picked. In fact, the difficulty in distinguishing between them is why the shell game continues to work after so many years.

But the difference is important-Conjuring is an illusion, performed for entertainment, that baffles and amazes its audience, while the shell game (a.k.a. Thimblerig, Three Shell and a Pea) is purely a swindle game used to perpetrate fraud and deprive the victim of something valuable.

It is too early to tell which this is, but the abrupt reversal of the federal agencies is certainly raising further suspicions about the motivations of the federal government and the role their fossil fuel rich corporate donors have in setting Canada’s energy policy.

Fortunately, British Columbians are too quick witted to fall for the magician’s slight of hard or the trickster’s fraud.

In 1972 British Columbia stood up and demanded that their fragile northern coastal waters be protected from fossil fuel tankers and offshore exploration and drilling. They stood up again in 2003 to oppose offshore drilling.

Over the past few months two Dogwood Initiative polls have documented that 75% of British Columbians want to ban tankers in northern inside waters. I am confident that, given information about the impending threat, a broad cross section of British Columbians – fishermen, First Nations,environmental groups, business people – will mobilize again in 2006 to oppose the plethora of companies proposing projects that would require oil and gas tankers to transit treacherous northern inside waters.

Dogwood Initiative will keep you informed.

Help us keep BC’s inside coastal waters free from oil tanker traffic.  Please make a donation.

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