34-year Old Oil Tanker Moratorium Being Violated

Recent events have heightened concerns about oil and gas projects proposed for British Columbia’s magnificent northern coast.

On August 4, the cargo ship Westwood Anette rammed a pier near Squamish bursting its fuel tank and spewing nearly 30,000 litres of bunker fuel into Howe Sound. The oil quickly dispersed blackening the shoreline of the Squamish estuary. Cleanup efforts costing $100,000 failed to prevent the estuary, birds and wildlife from being covered in toxic oil.

The oil spill in Howe Sound came just weeks after a tanker named Faithful secretly slipped through 140 kilometers of BC’s inside passage en route to the deep-sea port at Kitimat. This journey violated the existing moratorium banning tankers in BC’s northern inside passage that had been put in place in 1972 after a large public outcry.
Without any public notice, Faithful became the second tanker this summer to secretly make the trip to Methanex’s marine facility, where its cargo of 350,000 barrels of petroleum-based condensate, a product used to dilute bitumen mined in tar sands, was offloaded onto railcars destined for EnCana’s tar sands operation in Alberta.

News of Faithful’s secret journey triggered outrage among coastal communities, First Nations and environmental groups, who wondered what had happened to the existing oil tanker moratorium that had been in place for over thirty years.

Stephen Harper’s government is acting as if no moratorium exists on oil tankers. Although no official declaration has been made, his spokespeople have implied the government now interprets the moratorium to only apply to offshore oil drilling and exploration, not tankers.

Former government officials reject this claim. David Anderson, former Environment Minister and MP from Victoria, convinced then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to implement the ban 34 years ago. Anderson said recently that the federal Conservatives are conveniently misinterpreting the moratorium and that “The idea that you can pretend it doesn’t exist is stretching it a good deal”.

While controlling the federal government gives one a lot of power, it can’t change history. The long-standing government commitment to the moratorium banning oil tankers off the north coast is well documented. The moratorium has been referenced in thousands of news stories over the decades and in hundreds of public statements by Progressive Conservative, Liberal and NDP 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 explicitly referred to a moratorium banning “tankers through Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and the Dixon Entrance.” Note that the terms of reference contain no exemption for where the tankers are flagged or where they are traveling to or from.

Threats to coast multiply

The Faithful will not be the only tanker traveling BC’s fragile coastal waters if Mr. Harper and Mr. Campbell’s governments get their way. There are six major projects seeking approval that would bring additional oil and gas tankers into BC’s inside passage:

  1. Enbridge and Kinder Morgan are each seeking approval for competing pipeline projects that would bring oil tankers to Kitimat. Enbridge’s proposed Gateway pipeline, would pipe up to 1,000,000 barrels per day of exported tar sands crude oil from a pipeline originating in Alberta to be shipped on oil tankers bound for China, India and California. Kinder Morgan’s proposal would pipe 550,000 barrels per day along a similar route.
  2. Both Enbridge and Pembina Pipelines are seeking approval for competing pipelines that would each transport 150,000 and 100,000 barrels per day in imported “condensate” on tankers to Kitimat for off loading onto pipelines bound for Alberta and Summit Lake near Prince George.
  3. Kitimat LNG and Calgary-based Westpac Terminals are proposing Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal for Kitimat and Prince Rupert. LNG is natural gas super cooled to approximately -162 C (-260 F).  LNG typically contains hydrocarbons such as ethane and propane, and other toxic contaminants. These terminals would receive gas shipped on tankers from places such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Qatar, Russia and Alaska.

The good news is that not all the proposed pipelines will be built. Despite the rapid growth projected for tar sands production, by 2010, if all the proposed pipelines were built, there would be capacity to ship 2 times more oil than is being produced in Alberta. Investors are unlikely to fund pipelines operating at such a low percentage of capacity.

Opposition growing

A growing number of First Nations are opposed to pipeline projects that will impact their traditional territories. In an unprecedented move that must send chills up government and industry spines, they have come together and launched an independent First Nations’ review process. This review will operate separately from the federal government’s upcoming National Energy Board hearings.

Enbridge’s Gateway Pipeline project has received more media coverage than its competition and also faces the most obstacles. The Haida, Carrier Sekani and Treaty 8 First Nations’ support for an independent, Aboriginal review panel and threats of litigation, will likely delay Enbridge’s ambitious timelines.

Growing public opposition to tankers in BC’s inside passage could cause further delays. And any delay gives the project a significant handicap in the competitive race with the other proposed pipelines for financing and regulatory approval.

Locals are concerned because recent pipeline spills have killed fish, damaged streams, polluted water and injured and killed neighbors and workers in BC and in other parts of North America. A recent spill on Kinder Morgan’s (formerly Terasen) pipeline in Abbotsford spewed oil for a week before it was discovered, leading to the evacuation of local residents and damage to streams.

And recently, oil-giant BP was forced to shut down its crumbling North Slope pipeline in Alaska after it became the target of investigation by a federal grand jury, the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress following a March oil spill which dumped 270,000 gallons of oil onto the fragile tundra.

The carbon emissions from the various coastal projects would be another setback in meeting our Kyoto emission targets. Enbridge’s Gateway pipeline project alone would increase Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by between 12 and 30 megatonnes, which is equivalent to the emissions of almost six million passenger cars.

But it is tankers in BC’s inside passage from that pose the biggest environmental risk. A 1977 federal inquiry to investigate environmental, social, and navigational consequences of oil ports and tanker operations on BC’s west coast concluded that if a marine terminal were developed at Kitimat, “oil spills off the coast of BC would inevitably occur.” Data from tankers elsewhere suggests a major spill of over 10,000 barrels could occur every 6.37 years.

Dogwood Initiative is coordinating legal, political, and financial approaches to engage the corporations, the governments and the public about the various projects and their impacts on the environment and economy of the region.

Recently our efforts to raise awareness of the financial risks of the coastal projects were rewarded. CIBC World Markets reported to potential investors of the Enbridge pipeline, that “Our view has been that Gateway could be delayed.”

Militarizing the coast

Pipelines and tankers traveling to and from Kitimat and Prince Rupert will inject BC into the growing geopolitical struggle over the world’s remaining oil between the US and the emerging Asian economic powers of China and India. This has military, financial and political consequences.
If built, t
he oil pipelines threaten the US monopoly over tar sands oil, which it is counting on to fill its gas tanks. Both China (2nd largest oil consumer) and India (4th largest oil consumer) would become competitors to America.

As the geopolitical profile increases so to do the security issues. Approval of any one of the proposed projects would require an increased military presence.  Currently Canada has no naval presence in the region and the Coast Guard is stretched by current operations.

The pipelines and tanker traffic also mean that the region would become a potential terrorist target. And an increased military presence still wouldn’t guarantee security. Richard Clarke, former anti-terrorism advisor to four Presidents highlighted the security risks of LNG in his evaluation plan for a facility proposed for Rhode Island,

“While there is no adequate way in which to determine the probability of a terrorist attack on the proposed … LNG facility and inland waterway transit routing, there is adequate grounds to judge that such an attack would be consistent with terrorists demonstrated intent and capability. There is also a basis to judge that likely enhanced security measures would not significantly reduce the risk. While there are some differences among experts about the conditions needed to generate a catastrophic explosion and about the precise extent of the resulting damage, there is significant grounds to conclude that a high risk exists of catastrophic damage from the types of attacks terrorists are capable of mounting. Those damage levels would overwhelm regional trauma, burn, and emergency medical capabilities.”

Do northern communities and First Nations really want an increased military presence or terrorist threat that would inevitably follow expanded oil and gas port development?

Pipeline politics

Neither the federal nor provincial governments have taken a public position on any of the pipeline project proposals, but both are perceived to be supporters.

Privately, however, a Dogwood Initiative access to information request has revealed that the BC government is cheering Enbridge on. Last year Energy Minister Richard Nuefeld wrote to Enbridge and said,

The [BC government] …will be pleased to offer their assistance to Enbridge…
With respect to Enbridge’s concerns regarding a moratorium on oil tanker traffic off British Columbia’s coast, we would like to set out the Government’s views on this issue. In 1971 the Provincial Government passed a resolution expressing to the Federal Government concern over oil tanker traffic transporting oil from Alaska to American ports, off British Columbia’s coast. In 1972, the Federal Government announced a moratorium on foreign oil tankers traffic transiting the Canadian coast through Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and the Queen Charlotte Sound. This was a policy moratorium, and is not based on legislation.
In British Columbia’s view, a crucial aspect of the federal moratorium is that it remains solely directed at foreign oil tankers transiting British Columbia’s coast. The moratorium is not directed at, and has no application to, oil tankers sailing to or from British Columbia ports. 

It remains to be seen how much political capital each government is prepared to expend on the coastal oil and gas projects. If the Conservatives held a majority, there is little doubt that they would try to move quickly to withdraw the existing ban on offshore oil and gas development and tanker traffic.

Public opposition to northern tanker traffic is widespread. Two public opinion polls commissioned by Dogwood Initiative show that the majority of British Columbians support a ban on tankers in northern coastal waters. Support for a tanker ban is strong amongst supporters of all political parties, including the Conservatives – more than 72% of voters for all federal parties oppose oil tankers in northern waters.

These polls illustrate it would be very risky for Mr. Harper’s minority government to move forward aggressively. Perhaps Mr. Harper and Mr. Campbell should take note that every federal and provincial candidate running on a pro-oil and gas platform in a coast riding in BC has lost.

It ain’t over till it’s over

While opposition is growing the forces pushing to open BC’s coast to oil and gas are formidable. On the one side are the federal and provincial governments, fueled by oil companies, on the other, First Nations, local communities, groups like Dogwood Initiative and people like you. While we appear to be outgunned, never underestimate the power of passion and ingenuity.

I’m optimistic that together we will defeat these proposals – just like we did 34 years ago. 

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