Why oil supertankers have no place on the British Columbia coastline

Ideally, Canadians would have an opportunity to discuss what energy decisions are most in our national interest:  to export bitumen crude as fast as possible?  To refine the crude in Canada creating tens of thousands of jobs here? To continue to allow Eastern Canada to be dependent on Nigeria, Angola and Venezuela for oil supplies, or to improve the pipeline infrastructure heading east from Alberta to serve the rest of Canada?

We are not going to have that opportunity.  With the 2012 budget, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have made it clear (as if it were not abundantly clear already) that discussion about Canada’s energy policy will be viewed by them as tantamount to a direct attack on the national interest.  To point out that ignoring the climate crisis actually hurts our economy with costs by 2020 of over $5 billion/year (conservatively), as the National Round Table on Environment and Economy (NRTEE) did, is sufficient cause for execution.  Given the small cost of the NRTEE, its origins in the Mulroney era, and its mandate to bring industry leaders together with labour, environmental groups and others to find multi-stakeholder consensus, the decision to kill it was a shock.  Environment Minister Peter Kent’s defence of the decision (obviously not his decision) that we no longer need such an advisory body because we have the internet is a joke.

For an environmental group to organize to protect the environment of British Columbia is to become targeted for “sanctions” under the Canada Revenue Agency, with $8 million set aside for going after environmental groups.  As the Globe and Mail pointed out “witch hunts do not come cheap.” The CRA has been conducting a steady campaign of harassment against environmental charities for years.  Audits have been frequent for years, with the desired chilling effect on public criticisms of government policy. Does Mr. Harper really need to direct $8 million more to equip CRA for even greater levels of harassment?

The decisions have all been made.  The problem is that in asserting that oil supertankers can safely traverse British Columbia’s northern coastal waters, the Prime Minister is ignoring quite substantial evidence.

Transport Canada shocked experts through a facile conclusion delivered to the Joint Review Panel hearings on the Enbridge supertanker scheme.  No doubt at the direction of their political masters, Transport Canada told the panel it saw no “regulatory difficulties” with the proposal.  The document tabled to the review process in defence of this pre-ordained conclusion is a shoddy piece of work.  There is no reference to the 1972 moratorium on oil tankers, respected by every federal and BC government since then.    The conclusion the route is safe is based on the width and depth of channels and whether supertankers can actually fit through them.  The only discussion of weather and wave and storms is to suggest that (over time) a system of weather warnings will be set up to warn tankers to stay in port if it’s stormy.  How the tankers are to handle the extreme conditions known to come out of nowhere in the area is simply not discussed.

In that it has ignored Environment Canada’s Marine Weather Hazards Manual which states that the Hecate Strait (through which the supertankers must pass) is “the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world.”

Author John Vaillant in his classic The Golden Spruce described the Hecate Strait as “a malevolent weather factory: on a regular basis its unique combination of wind, tide, shoals, and shallows produces a kind of destructive synergy that has few parallels elsewhere in nature.”  He goes on to describe how “blind rollers” – enormous waves that come out of nowhere — can expose the sea floor of Hecate Strait.  The submission to the review process never even mentions the Hecate Strait.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans review of the threat to humpback whales in 2005 named the proposed tanker traffic to Kitimat as a threat to whale recovery.  Humpback whales are listed as a species at risk in the threatened category.  Scientists actually think the fin whales may be even more at risk of tanker collisions. The Transport Canada document suggests they will have whale spotters to warn a captain to avoid a whale.  Really? Whale spotters can see whales in fog? At night? In a gale?  No wonder that even in the report to the review panel contains concerns from DFO and recommends that Enbridge continue to work on this problem.

Lastly, Transport Canada’s conclusions are based on a long list of safety features, including using two tug boats to assist in supertanker navigation, which are voluntary.  Enbridge will not own or control the tankers, but asserts its approach to tanker approval will ensure safety of the tankers it does not control.

Some people may buy this bland reassurance.  It is a lot easier if you only care about selling bitumen crude to China, and a lot harder if you care about the existing tens of thousands of BC jobs dependent on a healthy coastal ecosystem.   In fact, if you care about keeping BC’s coast oil-free, it is impossible.