Whose Coast is it Anyway?

Alberta’s Premier Ed Stelmach claims that when it comes to bringing more and bigger oil tankers to BC’s coast, the decision is industry’s to make.

Mr. Stelmach and the rest of Canada’s oil lobby have been engaged in an effort to protect Alberta’s tar sands companies from proposed US climate policy. In doing so, they have implied an authority over British Columbia’s lands and waters that they don’t have.

Over the last few years, the ‘Dirty Oil’ image of Alberta’s tar sands has been getting progressively worse. Lobbyists and Public Relations officials have been unable to keep a lid on the dramatic footprint that this ‘bottom-of-the-barrel’ fuel stamps on people; and the land, water, and climate.

Those revelations have fed into an ongoing trend in the United States, most notably following the election of Barrack Obama, towards policy that seeks to transition away from carbon-intensive fuels and energy. This trend has lit a fire under the Alberta’s tar sands industry, who see it as a significant threat to further expansion.

In response, the three entities that largely comprise Canada’s oil lobby: (1) The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), (2) the Alberta Government, and (3) the Federal Government, have been pulling out all the stops to protect tar sands companies’ access to US markets.

One of their favorite tactics has been to threaten to send more of Canada’s oil to Asia, via more and bigger tankers through BC’s coast.

Oil Industry Threatens the ‘Asian Alternative ‘

Alberta’s Premier: ‘if we need to build a pipeline to BC’s coast, we will’

Alberta’s Premier Ed Stelmach: “We will not only depend on the American market. We will expand markets. If that means building a pipeline to the coast and selling oil to another country, we will,” Stelmach told reporters last year.

Stelmach later modified his stance saying it is up to the industry to decide whether they should build a pipeline to the coast in search ofnew markets.

“If there’s further resource development and otherparts of the world are crying for energy, the companies in the pipelinebusiness, I’m sure, will determine that and make that decision,” hesaid.

Canada’s Federal Trade Minister Stockwell Day agrees, saying that the building of pipelines and tanker projects through BC amount to “private sector decisions”

Canada’s largest private oil lobby (CAPP) has put it more subtly.
CAPP President David Collyer: “We see potential constraints to access to the U.S. market…I think the only realistic option, as an alternative to the U.S. in the near term, would be exports off the West Coast to the Far East.”

The general logic implied by the threat is that oil shipped to Asia decreases US energy and national security…’If you squeeze us’, says the tar sands lobby, ‘we’ll make it so that you really just end up squeezing yourself’.

But a threat needs to be made credible to have any power.

Oil Industry’s Threat is BC’s Loss

And that credibility is gained in large part by marginalizing the right of British Columbians to decide, for ourselves (1).  The decision to send oil to Asia is made to look like it really is up to the oil patch…that the definitive ‘thumbs-up’ on pipelines and tankers through BC is given by oil company ink on paper, not by us or our local representatives.

Gordon Campbell has been complicit in this threat via his support for an ‘Energy Corridor’ of oil and gas from Alberta to BC’s coast. Most recently, though indirectly, at a Premiers gathering in the Yukon. But frankly, it is not his decision to make either.

Indeed, though the ultimate decision over projects like Gateway is essentially designed to be in the hands of industry – via a review process that emphasizes mitigation of bad effects over an examination of the bigger picture – any process or institution in our democracy is only as legitimate as its popular support.

And with that as my measure, I look to the 72% of British Columbians who oppose north coast oil tanker traffic, to the thousands of British Columbians calling for a public inquiry, and to affected First Nations who are asserting their legitimate authority over the project, and I say confidently to Mr. Stelmach, Mr. Collyer, Gordon Campbell, and the oil industry writ large that sorry, this is not up to you.

1  –  The threat gains further credibility in the presence of an active West Coast pipeline proposal: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project. The $100 million dollar question is: are some of Enbridge’s Gateway financial backers more interested in the value of the idea of Gateway – as measured in leverage against US policy – more than the actual pipeline itself? If so, British Columbians are being used to a proportional degree as pawns in an international, oily chess match. For the record, I’m not OK with that.

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