Driving along the Barnet highway as a Branch of the Kinder Morgan Transmountain Pipeline ruptured must have provided for a spectacular site. A geyser of oil emerging from a suburban roadside and coating everything in black. Gardens, lawns , houses, back yard swings sets, everything, coated black. The drivers, among the first to be affected by will likely be among the first to forget. But nature will not forget if there is a major spill in an area where there are no highways, the pristine waters of northern BC.

As we all know, accidents happen and, as the residents of Burnaby are now discovering, when they involve crude oil, they are damn hard to clean up. Last weeks pipeline rupture that spewed an estimated 234,000 litres of oil over streets, homes, back yards and into Burrard Inlet will be a problem for affected residents and the environment for a long time to come. However serious these are they pale in comparison to the effects a major spill would have along proposed pipeline corridors and tanker routes in Northern BC.

The circumstances of the Burnaby spill allowed for a quick response which significantly mitigated the effects of the disaster. Not only was it immediately detected and the pipeline shut down, but the area of the spill is adjacent to the home of Burrard Clean, the private company contracted by BC’s oil industry to cleanup spills. Oil seeping into Burrard Inlet was quickly contained and calm weather facilitated the deployment of oil booms.

In Burnaby they are decontaminating the area. Back yards are being dug up and contaminated soil, trees and gardens are being trucked off to landfills. No doubt in a short while motorists speeding down the highway will be unable to distinguish this suburb from any other. The people who will feel the lingering effects are those with deeper connections to the land and water. The Tsleil-Waututh First Nation who can no longer harvest their clam beds, the naturalist who study the salmon and bird life.

In Northern Coastal BC that deeper connection to the land and water is more common.  No highways cut through the pristine areas along the proposed tanker routes. To get there you have to travel by boat. Commercial, recreational and sports fishermen, First Nations and cruise ship passengers all use the waterways as their highway. It is a difficult road, one subject to 25 foot tides and hurricane force winds. A road that has taken many lives and supports many livelihoods.

The oil and gas industry want to use these waterways as their highway too. Transporting crude oil, condensate and LNG between pipeline terminals and the pacific markets of asia and California. But what would it mean if there was a major spill along this “highway”?

The 232,000 litres or 1478 barrels of oil spilled in Burnaby is a drop in the bucket compared to the volumes of crude the oil industry and federal conservative government would see pumped to our coast. Proposed pipelines from Alberta to Kitimat will carry in the vicinity of 400,000 barrels of crude oil a day. That’s 16,667 barrels an hour, twenty four hours a day. In the 20 minutes it took to turn off the Burnaby pipeline 5556 barrels or over 872,000 litres of oil would gush from such a pipeline.

But the biggest threat is from oil tankers loaded with between 1.1 and 2.3 million barrels of oil. As the Report of the Public Review Panel on Offshore Oil and Gas Activities stated, “…there is no credible spill response operation in the Queen Charlotte Region for most of the winter months.” If the proposed tanker facilities are built the industry will no doubt have to try to address this fact. Yet having enough equipment and personnel on hand to protect the hundreds of kilometres of coastline along the proposed tanker routes is an impossible task. Even in ideal conditions the oil tanker industry can at best manage a 15% spill cleanup.

The oil industry tries to convince us that an accident won’t happen here, but extreme weather conditions and navigational hazards make spills a certainty. Transport Canada estimates that if all the projects proposed for the North Coast go ahead we will see one major, ten moderate and one hundred minor spills a year with a “catastrophic” spill every fifteen years. 

Nobody foresaw the Burnaby oil spill. Tankers on BC’s North Coast are a different matter. If we want to avoid an accident there, there is only one way to do it. Keep the coast clear of Tankers.