The Tar Sands come to Kitimat

If you travel up the Douglas Channel, the 140-kilometre fjord that joins Kitimat to the Pacific Ocean, your mind is unlikely to be on Alberta’s tar sands. Maybe you are there to see some of its pristine wilderness or even catch a glimpse of the rare white Kermode (spirit) bear. Or you might be there to catch some of the huge Chinook or Coho salmon in one of BC’s premier fishing grounds. Tourism and the fishery are big business in the area. Both rely on being situated on one of the world’s great stores of biodiversity, the Galapagos of the North: coastal British Columbia.

As you travel up the magnificent fjord your mind is unlikely to be on the tar sands, but maybe it should be. Eight oil and gas projects proposed for BC’s north coast not only threaten to bring tar sands crude to the area, but tar sands problems as well.        

Although there is a lot of talk about the money generated by Alberta’s oil patch, many British Columbians think of our cousins in Fort McMurray as somewhat poorer. The tar sands are a distant and dirty place, a boomtown where the quality of life of the inhabitants and the integrity of the environment has been sacrificed to capitalize on the temporary economic gains of a world near peak oil production. As the social and physical infrastructure strains under the pressure of runaway development of oil and gas, even the residents of Fort McMurray are crying for a halt to the unfettered growth.

In BC we celebrate our glacier-tipped mountains, our salmon streams, and our ancient forests. The tar sands have “overburden,” tailing ponds, and strip mines. A tar sands mine is a barren moonscape. Overburden (what scientists and wildlife call boreal forest), including all the soil and vegetation, is stripped away to reveal the bituminous clay. Tailing ponds, massive lakes of toxic waste water, have now grown large enough to be visible from space. For each barrel of oil produced, two to five barrels of waste water are left behind. Four tonnes of earth are dug up to produce that same barrel of oil. Shovels the size of a two-car garage fill mining trucks weighing as much as two fully loaded 747s and remove enough “overburden” to fill BC Place every two days. The tar sands are devastating their local environment.

Driving climate change

But their impact doesn’t stop there. The tar sands’ global legacy is it’s contribution to climate change. The sands only give up their oil through energy-intensive processing. The oil has to be steamed out of the sand. To produce one barrel of oil takes enough natural gas to heat the average house for a day and a half. It takes three to four times more energy to extract a barrel of tar sands crude than it does to extract a barrel of conventional oil. Every single barrel of oil produced creates 80 kg of carbon emissions-more than the average car produces driving from Vancouver to Whistler and back. Tar sands production currently tops 1.1 million barrels a day. If the oil industry has its way that number will be closer to five million by 2030.

But wait a minute, weren’t we just on the Douglas Channel, taking in the spectacular mountain scenery? What could be further from the strip mines of Fort McMurray? What’s the link? The link of course is pipelines.

The massive expansion of the tar sands can only take place if there is a way to get the oil to market. Currently this means piping the oil south to the U.S., but fossil fuel companies want to open up new pipeline routes to the north coast of BC. From Kitimat, oil tankers can ship tar sands crude to new markets in Asia, most notably China.

There and back again

Proposed tar sands infrastructure on the coast of BC doesn’t stop there, though. The tar sands itself is a hungry beast. The oil it produces is too thick to flow through pipelines and needs to be diluted by a toxic chemical brew called condensate (a kerosene-like by-product of natural gas). Condensate from Russia and other natural gas producers is to be shipped to Kitimat, and each crude oil pipeline proposal from the tar sands is twinned with a condensate pipeline travelling east. Imported shipments of condensate have in fact already started arriving at Kitimat’s Methanex/Encana terminal and are currently being sent on to Fort McMurray by rail.

And then there are the tar sands operations energy needs. It takes huge quantities of natural gas to heat the water used to steam the oil out of the ground. Kitimat LNG and Westpac Terminals LNG in Prince Rupert are vying for the privilege of importing liquefied natural gas (LNG), which could be used to facilitate the runaway development of Canada’s worst polluter. Why?

Inviting Disaster

It is much easier to see what BC stands to lose than what it stands to gain from these proposed projects. The pipelines themselves, travelling 1,100 km from Alberta to coastal BC, traversing mountain ranges and crossing over 1,000 rivers and streams, pose a major environmental hazard themselves, but the biggest and most obvious threat to our coast is from oil and gas tankers.

For the projects to go through, the thirty-five-year-old moratorium on oil tanker traffic along BC’s coast would have to be lifted. In place since 1972, the Federal government last considered lifting the ban in the 1980s. Then the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound spilling 257,000 barrels (41.5 million litres) of oil and leaving a devastating legacy of damage still felt today.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill sticks out in our mind as one of the most environmentally destructive spills in history. In the world of oil spills it ranks only as the 53rd largest. Its disproportionate impact relates to the wealth of the west coast marine environment.

If the current coastal oil and gas proposals go ahead, each year we could see 320 tankers the size of the Exxon Valdez winding along the labyrinthine coastline of BC, through grey whale migratory routes, past approximately 650 salmon spawning rivers, through feeding grounds for humpback and orca whales. The tankers will travel past the tip of Gil Island, resting place of the sunken ferry Queen of the North. They will travel through waters that are home to the 1.7-billion dollar west coast fishery, the same waters that 500,000 cruise ship passengers travel each year to Prince Rupert. A spill in these waters would spell disaster.

When, not if

A spill is more a question of when, and how large, than if. Industry averages suggest there will be a spill of over 1,000 barrels (over 159,000 litres) every 2 to 3 years, and a major spill of over 10,000 barrels (1.59 million litres) every 6-7 years. Transport Canada estimates that there will be about a hundred minor spills and ten moderate spills a year. The entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound is noted for its submerged pinnacles of rock and extreme weather conditions. The tanker industry considers a 15% spill clean-up a success in ideal conditions. The conditions in coastal BC are far from ideal.

So what is the upside? This is one area where the traditional jobs vs. the environment argument doesn’t hold. After a short-lived construction boom, there will only be a handful of full-time jobs. Enbridge Gateway, the largest pipeline project and the one furthest along in the regulatory process, promises seventy-five full time jobs throughout BC, thirty in Kitimat. By contrast, 16,000 people are currently employed in the west coast fishery.

Despite the huge risks, and despite both the provincial and federal governments’ recent rhetoric on climate change and the environment, neither government is willing to stand up and defend the tanker moratorium. Documents obtained by Dogwood Initiative under the Freedom of Information Act show that the BC Government has offered to assist Enbridge in its bid to have tankers ply BC’s coastal waters. The documents claim the moratorium only applies to “foreign” oil tankers transiting the coast on th
eir way to Alaska, not domestic tankers bound for BC’s own coast. Though patently absurd, the BC government’s statements point to the vulnerability of a moratorium that was laid out in policy, but never legislated.

The federal Conservatives have remained quiet on the matter, but are allowing pipeline projects to go ahead. Their natural allegiance to the oil and gas industry is perhaps tempered by polls commissioned by Dogwood Initiative showing 75% of British Columbians of all political stripes support a ban on oil tankers in northern waters.

You can stop the tankers

Stopping the foray of the tar sands into our wild and beautiful coast may seem like a mammoth task, but it is a strong case for how a little organized local action can make a huge difference to carbon emissions and the environment. It shows how protecting our livelihoods can help protect the world for future generations.

The future of the tanker moratorium can be decided by just two men: Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gary Lunn, Minister of Natural Resources and MP for Saanich and the Gulf Islands. The lone Conservative MP on the BC coast, Gary Lunn would no doubt like to keep his job. It’s time to tell him he’ll lose it if he fails to support and strengthen the moratorium on oil tankers.

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