Since the late sixties David Anderson has kept a lookout for oil and gas projects on BC’s coast. Now it’s time for the next generation to take the watch.
Charles Campbell: When were you first alerted to the issues of oil tankers on our north coast?
David Anderson: When the Prudhoe Bay Field was discovered [in 1968] it was clear that the Americans would need some sort of transportation system to move the oil. And of coarse a pipeline across Alaska was going to mean a tanker route south of Alaska.
At the same time there were a series of tanker accidents worldwide best typified by the Tarry Canyon disaster off the coast of England and Wales in 1968, the year I got elected. So you had two things working. One was the inevitability of a tanker route on the coast. Two were some major disasters elsewhere in the world and a general failure to recognize in Canada that this major oil artery was going to be running down our coast.
CC: How did you go about opposing the tankers?
DA: I launched a lawsuit, along with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defence Fund, Friends of the Earth, the Cordova District Fisherman’s Union, and Natural Resources Defence Fund.
CC: What was the nature of the lawsuit?
DA: The lawsuit was over the American government’s and the oil companies’ failure to honour the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which required proper analysis of environmental impact. The twist, which caused me to lose at the trial level but win at the appeal level, was that the oil companies and the US government argued the law did not apply outside the United States. My argument was that the preamble to the law talked about the worldwide concern for the environment, and it would just not make sense if this narrow interpretation were followed.
This was the landmark environmental assessment lawsuit. The landmark, because it was the first one that really defined the parameters of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. And we won it!
CC: You were an MP at the time. What role did this play in your political career?
DA: At the same time I was working within Canada to raise this issue. I founded the first environmental committee in the House of Commons, against the wishes of the government and opposition party leaders, but with the co-operation of some MPs from my and other parties.
CC: What about back in Saanich and Esquimalt?
DA: Well the first thing was to persuade people that really this was important. In those days-as now-you had people shrug and say, “Well that’s progress, we have to put up with decreasing environmental standards if we want increasing jobs.”
I’ve always denied that more jobs is a necessity on this coast. We seem to have far too many people coming anyway. Lifestyle and the environment is why we are here. It seems very contradictory to destroy it so that you can bring more people here.
CC: What were the feelings of your constituents?
DA: There was a certain skepticism, but in the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a very strong environmental concern. My constituents as a whole were very interested, but it was not considered to be one of those issues where people switch votes. That may have changed now.
CC: So there was not a lot of political traction to be gained from your opposition to tankers.
DA: It wasn’t me running to the head of a parade to lead it. I had to do it myself, and then people came. There were no organisations. The Sierra Club’s interests were forests, forest tenure and clear cutting, not fish or marine matters. It just wasn’t their focus. The same with Greenpeace. They were focused on other things.
CC: How did the American lawsuit evolve into a moratorium on tanker traffic and coastal drilling in Canada?
DA: The fact is that we couldn’t have a consistent position saying we are very concerned about tankers coming down the coast of Alaska if at the same time we weren’t taking other steps within our own jurisdiction to minimize risk.
With the lawsuit and the publicity it engendered we did create a political issue for the Canadian government. People were beginning to say, “If an MP has to find the money himself to sue in the American courts, where the hell is the Canadian government?” So eventually we got Trudeau, who understood the issue of spills, as a good ally; he wasn’t captured by industry or anything. In due course the rest of government adopted the concern and we established Canadian policy.
CC: Fast forwarding to the present day, how do you see this playing out now?
DA: It is the old story of constant vigilance. There will always be some commercial group who have some interest in a port or some sort of development, maybe coastal drilling. It may be the failed Enbridge proposal; it may be a proposal in Kitimat, as we had the late seventies; or the almost-successful attempt to lift the drilling ban in the very late eighties, which Exxon Valdez put an end to. You will always get this pressure from some commercial interest.
You know these things are always going to keep coming and you know you have to win, because once you lose it’s over. And once you lose you must remember you’ve lowered the benchmark for every other development that comes along the pipe, because you can’t discriminate against companies. Once you have established a northern port with oil going through it you can’t say to the TransMountain people, “You can’t use your pipeline to bring oil out of Alberta and ship it out of Vancouver.” Once you’ve established drilling in the north you can’t say, “Well, by the way, you can’t drill among the Gulf Islands.” No, you have to be consistent.
CC: You mentioned vigilance. What does it feel like now that you are out of politics and less able to play that role of watcher?
DA: Others have to take it up. Politics is very energetic and people are coming forward. Briony Penn, an absolutely committed environmentalist, is running for the national Parliament in Saanich. I’m very happy about that.
There are lots of good environmentalists, but some must work within the political system. Ultimately that is where policy is formed. And environmentalists must get involved in politics in parties that have a chance of influencing policy. I have great respect for people that work in the Green Party, but I’m not in it because I simply don’t think I can spend 20 years to create something new. To get your environmental objectives you have to be in the mainstream parties, those that have a chance of being in government.
CC: What do you have to say about what Stephen Harper and Gary Lunn are saying in terms of their denial of the moratorium?
DA: Well the trouble with Mr Lunn and Mr Harper is that they have a major credibility issue, because he and his government have made a lot of statements that are clearly pro-development. It is a sort of shell game, as with their new rhetoric on climate change. Come on, Mr Lunn, less than a year ago you were dismantling programs on climate change. Now you re-establish some of them-but not all of them.
This is why his boss, Mr Harper, is not doing well in the polls. You can’t reverse yourself, as he has on climate change, without saying, “I’m sorry, I was wrong; I made a mistake here.” You can’t simply ignore all that and pretend you’ve been right all along. So this is where he has a credibility issue and why he can’t be trusted on tanker traffic.
CC: To conclude, what advice do you have for those fighting tankers now?
DA: Well first keep up the fight. It is winnable. It has been winnable over the last 36 years and that’s a pretty good stretch of time. It’s winnable over the next 36 and the 36 after that. And the way to do that is through the political process.
My view is that you have to get out there and get to the political meetings. There are only so many political meetings and only so many people get to the microphones. If
the question keeps coming back and back and back to the question of tanker traffic and drilling even the densest of candidate is going to realize they have to say something on this that is unequivocal.
It is not an entirely responsive process at all times, but it is very responsive at certain times, such as elections. People should get out and work for candidates such as Briony Penn. Go door to door and say, “I think this is terribly important, because there is a risk here that perhaps you are not fully aware of, and we think you should support someone willing to stand up and do everything possible on a political level to prevent this happening. People are impressed by that kind of commitment.
If people are interested, make sure this is the issue for all candidates. And make sure they get a candidate elected who is going to be able to do something in power. We want people who are where it counts, not just people who appear at each election, say the right things, and vanish. I just look back at my career. I could not have done a lot of things unless I was elected. It gave me credibility. How would I ever have launched a lawsuit representing the people of British Columbia? But I was able to do much of what I did because I had the platform of elected office.