We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

If the Dollar Rules, Let's Dam the Fraser

And other arguments against letting the 'economy' trump nature in BC.

By Rafe Mair 9 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every second Monday. Read his previous columns here. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian, where a version of this article was first published.

Robyn Allan is the former president and CEO of the Insurance Corporation of B.C. and is an economist by trade. I have enormous respect for Allan and concur with her conclusion, stated frequently and as recently as July 6 in the Vancouver Sun, that the proposed Enbridge pipeline will have a deleterious impact on the Canadian economy generally and that of B.C. in particular.

The economics of this huge issue are, of course, very important to the decision-making process and to the decision itself. My caveat, however, is that to dwell on the economy brings with it great risks.

Back in the days before independent power producer boondoggles, fish farms, pipelines and tankers, the argument regarding salmon always involved sports fishermen, commercial fishermen and to complete the circle, Aboriginal fishing. The money each group brought into the B.C. economy was an ongoing political theme. I, amongst others, argued that this was a dangerous argument since it invited comparisons to other ways the rivers and oceans could be used to much greater economic advantage -- such as power dams doubling as flood control dams.

Indeed, that argument has been lurking in the political shadows for 75 years with a fair amount of governmental and commercial issue.

When they wanted to dam the Fraser

If one were to debate a dam on the Fraser River near Lytton, the economic argument is all in favour of the dam. While the salmon runs to be ruined will cost the province and those who fish a lot of money, that is offset, we're told by industry and government, by the enormous financial gains from the dam itself many, many times over.

In fact such a dam, called the Moran, has been on the drawing board since late in the Second World War when it was pushed by the federal government. Premier WAC Bennett raised this issue again in the 1960s and was only stopped by the outcry of those who put the heritage of our salmon ahead of the incredible profits that would come from a huge dam.

Here are the stats according to Wikipedia:

"The dam would have been 261 metres (856 ft) high, generating as much power on average as Grand Coulee Dam and twice of Hoover Dam combined -- much of this energy would have been sold to the northwestern United States. It would form a gigantic reservoir 260 kilometres (160 mi) long, containing some 35.4 cubic kilometres (28,700,000 acre ft) of water at maximum pool reaching almost to the town of Quesnel. A significant portion of this capacity would be reserved for flood control."

The argument that our Pacific salmon are worth more than money prevailed then. Would it prevail today if the issue was revived, which I'm certain will happen?

Pipeline full of expensive risks

With the proposed Enbridge pipeline, the financial benefits are not worth the candle, as Allan so clearly and accurately says. The trouble is that the governments won't pay the slightest attention to her or to the Common Sense Canadian's economist, Erik Andersen. There will be a barrage of one-liners about progress, jobs, blah blah blah, so that economic truths will be trumped by public relations.

The environmental implications of the proposed Enbridge pipeline are serious beyond belief. We're talking 1,100 km over 1,000 rivers and streams. The environmental implications are huge and my point to Allan is that before we get to economics, let's see what this pipeline will do and glance at tanker traffic too.

The main thing to note is that there will, not may, be ruptures and spills. These are mathematical certainties. not "risks." My example is the revolver with 100 chambers and one bullet. If you put this to your temple and will only pull the trigger once, or perhaps a dozen times, indeed 1,000 times, you can calculate the risk. If on the other hand you are going to pull it forever the risk becomes a virtual certainty -- as pipelines and tankers are certain to leak or rupture.

In the revolver example, if the one bullet is actually marshmallow, who cares? Except as I explain below, we're not dealing with marshmallow here.

Enbridge has an appalling environmental record -- about one rupture or spill per week. There is no question that if the pipeline goes through there will be multiple spills. And as Allan astutely points out, due to the structure Enbridge has set up to own and operate the pipeline, their liability for a spill will be severely limited, leaving British Columbians holding the bag for cleanup costs. 

What would Jesus do?

The substance being transported is not crude oil as we understand it, but bitumen, a near solid, which unlike other oils sinks like a stone and is infinitely more toxic. Enbridge has shown in the Kalamazoo River case that it simply cannot be cleaned up, even when it can easily bring workers and machinery into the area.

In short, the pipeline is a series of ongoing disasters simply waiting to happen.

The Northern Gateway pipeline goes through some of the least accessible places in the world, where the only way to get in is by helicopter. There is no way in the world that workers and equipment could be brought to the site and even if they could, the damage from the spill could never be properly cleaned up.

It's interesting to note that Enbridge and its supporters sneer at the possibility that they would have to file plans for crossing 1,000 rivers and streams. This, they say, is absurd. 

I ask why is it absurd? The common environmental requirement for pipelines is that they must file plans for crossing watercourses. Why should that not be the case just because there are a lot of watercourses?

I thoroughly agree with Allan, but simply say we shouldn't let ourselves get to the spot where the economics are considered. In the economic argument, money trumps environment arguments every time.

For those who really care about the environment there is a compelling spiritual argument that deserves our full attention. Salmon and other fish (indeed the entire environment) have a value that transcends commercial interests. We're talking the very soul of our province, and Jesus's poignant question hits the heart of the matter in Mark 8:36. "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"  

What indeed?  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox


The Barometer

What do you think the outcome of this election will be?

Take this week's poll