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Oiling up the Coast

Harper shrugs off 35-year ban on risky tanker traffic.

By David Beers 30 Apr 2007 |

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee. This article appeared Saturday in the Globe and Mail.

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Proposed tanker route into Kitimat.

People on British Columbia's north coast have come to rely on a couple of assumptions.

One, oil tankers are forbidden to sail close to their jagged shore. Too risky.

Two, Albertans and their oil schemes are a safe, comfortable distance away.

Wrong on both counts, it seems, because Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shrugged off a 35-year practice to ban oil tankers plying B.C.'s inside passage. His stance is sure to raise a ruckus and cost him support in B.C.

Harper apparently figures the risk to the environment and his political standing is worth it given the stakes. The stakes being the melding of Alberta and B.C. into one seamless infrastructure designed to extract, move and profit from petroleum-based energy.

More about that vision in a minute, but first a brief history of the moratorium the PM says never really existed.

Ever since Trudeau...

Former Liberal environment minister David Anderson was there when it came into being. Actually, he was instrumental. In 1971 he and others successfully sued the U.S. government to prevent tankers laden with Alaskan oil from endangering the Canadian coastline. Congress then took it up and the two countries entered into an understanding that U.S. oil vessels would stay 70 nautical miles offshore. It's a fact reflected on nautical charts still.

Anderson told The Tyee he convinced the prime minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, to go a step further and ban offshore oil drilling along B.C.'s coast, and to apply the U.S. tanker ban to other oil carriers as well, a practice that has been maintained by every federal government, until now. The offshore drilling moratorium is still in place (for now). As is the diplomatic understanding concerning the Alaska tankers. So why is Harper turning a blind eye to other carriers?

Perhaps it would be helpful here to pull back for an aerial view. Down there are Alberta's tar sands. Between them and the B.C. coast, a lattice of proposed pipelines pumping crude from tar sands to coast, and pumping back the imported kerosene-like condensate needed to process the tar sands. This would require beefing up the northern B.C. ports of Kitimat and Prince Rupert to handle tanker traffic.

Megaprojects, megabucks. It's an intoxicating vision for some. The B.C. Liberal government as well as Harper's Conservatives are working hard on it. One who is leading the charge is Minister of Natural Resources Gary Lunn, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.

Their enthusiasm isn't shared by most British Columbians, including many Harper voters. When, last year, Ipsos Reid asked Conservatives in B.C. their top priority for finding new energy, 53 per cent supported wind and solar; 30 per cent said pursue more efficiency, and only 11 per cent chose going after new sources of oil, like the tar sands.

The same poll found 71.7 per cent of Conservative voters wanted a ban on oil tankers close to shore.

Expect a nasty spill

Justification for such concern is available on a website of the Dogwood Initiative, the Victoria-based sustainability think tank that sponsored the poll.

Consider that "tankers would be travelling along the labyrinthine coastline of B.C., through grey whale migratory routes, past approximately 650 salmon spawning rivers ... over 20 threatened and endangered species would be negatively impacted by a spill."

Consider that a spill would devastate local fishing and tourism. That a "major" spill of 10,000 or more barrels is bound to happen every seven years by industry average. And that cleanup would be futile given the terrain.

Then there's the special case of liquefied natural gas (LNG), super-chilled in bulbous tankers that, should one explode, could wipe out a large city according to U.S. terrorism expert Richard C. Clarke. For security reasons, the U.S. would prefer to have LNG terminals located beyond its borders. Kitimat has been proposed to fill the bill.

Back in 1977, when it looked like the tanker ban might be lifted, a Greenpeace zodiac crossed Hartley Bay to confront an oil industry cruise boat full of politicos -- which ran over and nearly killed the activists. The bad publicity helped reinforce the ban.

A dozen years later, friends of oil tankers in B.C. again began to get traction -- just in time to be scuppered by the Exxon Valdez disaster.

This time, Will Horter of Dogwood is among a broad swath of citizens preparing to do battle.

"With no transparency, the prime minister has reversed a 35-year-old policy that's deeply felt by British Columbians, hoping nobody will notice," says Horter. "He's trying to position himself as a decisive leader. If he thinks this is a top priority, don't slide it through the back door."

A forthright energy plan is what Horter, and a lot of Canadians, would welcome in this season of political greenspeak. In the meantime, British Columbians are in no mood to sacrifice their coast for Alberta's further oil enrichment.

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