B.C. local governments say whoa there cowboy to Kinder Morgan pipeline and oil tanker expansion plans through Juan de Fuca Strait.

Late one afternoon near the end of September during the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) conference in Vancouver, I watched Victoria City Councillor Philippe Lucas step up to the microphone. He was bringing a special emergency resolution to the floor for a vote. It was the culmination of weeks of hard work by many municipal leaders such as Mayor Derek Corrigan and Burnaby city councillors Dan Johnston and Sav Dhaliwal and Mayor Dean Fortin and Victoria councillor Chris Coleman. Councillor Lucas heaved a sigh of relief when the resolution passed by an overwhelming majority, which I’m sure he shared with those who had worked so hard to communicate the urgency of the issue to other delegates.

The resolution, “LR6, Oil Tankers and Pipelines in BC”, was co-sponsored by the city councils of Victoria and Burnaby. It shines a light on a pressing though under-reported concern that could affect millions of British Columbians: the planned expansion of oil tanker traffic through the waters of the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island.

The UBCM conference is like a local government Annual General Meeting, Christmas party and staff retreat all rolled into one week of non-stop action. It’s where our local municipal representatives get together and make decisions on province-wide issues and demand the attention of the provincial government. I showed up this year specifically to talk with representatives about my concerns regarding oil tankers and the planned Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.

Oil tanker traffic out of the Westridge terminal in Burnaby has increased from 22 tankers a year in 2005 to 71 in 2010. That’s a whopping 322% increase! These tankers fill up with oil sands crude from Kinder Morgan’s existing Trans Mountain pipeline and then ply some of the busiest waters in B.C. from Burnaby through the Burrard Inlet, English Bay, Georgia Strait, Haro Strait and then down Juan de Fuca Strait. If there was an oil spill, millions of people in the most populous communities in B.C. along the southern coast would be affected. Residents of Sidney, Vancouver, Delta, the Southern Gulf Islands, Oak Bay, Victoria, Saanich and Whiterock could all find crude oil washing up on their shores.

Kinder Morgan has plans to further expand the size and frequency of oil shipments by 405% by 2016. That’s 288 super tankers a year! The planning for this expansion is going on largely below the radar of most British Columbians. So far, there has been no active public consultation or solicitation of local government input. This is because Kinder Morgan’s expansions have been pursued incrementally and so haven’t triggered a thorough review process.

Once alerted to this sneaky expansion strategy, Victoria and Burnaby city councillors immediately went to work to co-sponsor and submit their emergency resolution, in which they demand that the National Energy Board and Port Metro Vancouver ensure that any future applications undergo “the highest degree of environmental assessment and meaningful public consultation, including direct engagement with affected municipalities, regional authorities and BC First Nations.”

I managed to catch-up with councillor Lucas shortly after the conference and debrief with him about the resolution. “We managed to pull LR6 and make a strong argument and I think what we did was stand up for the rights of residents and municipalities. We cannot be left out of the consultative process” he told me. Lucas’ experience at the UBCM conference gives him hope, “I always find that municipal politicians are far more progressive on environmental and social issues than at provincial or federal levels. We’re closer to the ground and more in contact with the general population.”

My experience at the UBCM conference underscored how important mayors, councillors and regional directors are when it comes to big issues that matter most to British Columbians. And guess what? We’re moving into B.C.’s municipal election season! If we want to build healthy resilient communities we need to start at home by electing smart and bold leaders. Lucas reminded me that at the UBCM it’s us, the voters, who determine the political outcomes: “motions appear [at the UBCM] because the people of BC say that these things matter.”

If issues like the expansion of oil tankers, the agricultural land reserve or coal mining in BC are important to you, start at home and elect champions on those issues. Find out who your candidates are and ask them tough questions. It’s time local communities organized and asserted their rights alongside First Nations governments to determine how our shared land, water, air and resources are used or protected.