Where the waters of Caamano Sound squeeze into Whale Channel, four humpback whales circle in slow, languorous patterns. The whales dive, and the water above returns to calm save for a few wind ripples. Suddenly a single whale reemerges in a burst of bubbling water, mouth agape, its great baleen plates exposed and scooping up a massive mouthful of krill and small fish.
The sight of these massive mammals—which can weigh more than 40 tonnes—deftly corralling schools of tiny fish is truly astounding. Scientists call this spectacle “bubble net feeding”, and it’s not by accident that humpback, finback, and minke whales, along with Dall’s and harbour porpoises, orcas, and Pacific white-sided dolphins, congregate here: there is abundant food and a relatively hospitable environment for wildlife.
Caamano Sound is a universe away from the office towers of Edmonton, but these disparate locations are now inextricably linked by plans for the so-called Northern Gateway pipeline, which will connect Alberta with Kitimat on B.C.’s central coast. And you can’t talk about pipelines without discussing oil tankers plying some of the province’s most ecologically rich and diverse waters as they make their way from open ocean into Caamano Sound, around Gil Island, where B.C. Ferries’ Queen of the North foundered in 2006, and northeast up Douglas Channel to the port at Kitimat.
Marven Robinson is a wildlife guide and a band councillor with the Gitga’at First Nation in Hartley Bay, a small village at the mouth of Douglas Channel. He knows his way around the reaches, sounds, and narrows of this part of the coast like a taxi driver knows the city, and oil tankers cutting through the heart of Gitga’at territory don’t exactly square well with his vision of the future.
“With what happened to the Queen of the North, that was just a small spill and there’s still fuel leaking up from that,” Robinson says. “We’re being really careful about what we say publicly right now because we haven’t even met with the proponents yet.”
If the volatile economics of oil and environmental approvals fall into place, Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. hopes to construct 1,200-kilometre twin pipelines linking the oil fields of northern Alberta with the deep-water port at Kitimat. A westbound pipeline, about a metre in diameter, would carry 525,000 barrels of oil daily, and a 50-centimetre-wide eastbound line would daily transmit 193,000 barrels of condensate, a petroleum byproduct used to thin crude oil for transport and piping.
By selling 10 units at $10 million each, and giving buyers preferential treatment in booking capacity on the future pipeline, Enbridge has already raised $100 million from heavyweight Asian refiners and Canadian producers to help bring the project to regulatory approval.
The subplot to this story is that major oil-sands players like Suncor, Husky, Shell, and Petro-Canada desperately want the pipeline to access Asian markets as a cushion against threats from the nascent Barack Obama administration to wean the U.S. off its reliance on dirty oil-sands fuel.
Enbridge expects this $4-billion-plus project to create some 4,000 construction jobs as it crosses the traditional territories of at least 40 different First Nations bands in B.C. and Alberta. The company is promising state-of-the-art shipping protocols, with double-hulled vessels, radar-monitoring stations, pilot supertugs, and first-response emergency stations located in Kitimat and communities like Hartley Bay. Throughout the fall, Steve Greenaway, vice president of Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines—a general partner of Enbridge Inc.—led a series of open houses in communities along the pipeline route. Barring any major roadblocks, Greenaway says, Enbridge plans to file for regulatory approval by mid-2009, kicking off an estimated two-year environmental review to be carried out jointly by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the National Energy Board. At the earliest, construction could begin in 2011 or 2012. However, over the past two years there has been furious debate about the validity of an ambiguous federal government statement dating back to the early 1970s that refers to a moratorium on oil-tanker traffic along the B.C. coast. As far as Greenaway is concerned, though, the moratorium is not an issue.
“If there was a moratorium that was in any way enforceable, I’d suspect that the David Suzuki Foundation or the people at Dogwood [Initiative] would have pursued this in court,” Greenaway says. “As a British Columbian, I understand people’s concerns, but we feel that our safety systems will be as good as anything in the world.”
When it comes to provincial and federal government support, Greenaway has good reason to be optimistic about Northern Gateway’s prospects. The pipeline fits neatly within the B.C. Liberals’ energy game plan, which could have not only pipelines linking the coast to Alberta but also drilling rigs in Hecate Strait east of the Queen Charlotte Islands, an activity that has been off-limits for more than 30 years because of federal and provincial moratoriums on offshore oil and gas exploration and development. That’s why in the B.C. Energy Plan, the government promises to work “to lift the federal moratorium on offshore exploration and development and reiterate the intention to simultaneously lift the provincial moratorium”.
In a strange twist, former provincial NDP leader and cabinet minister Dan Miller has emerged as one of the most vocal cheerleaders for offshore oil exploration. Although high investment costs, uncertainty about proven reserves, and environmental issues will likely keep offshore oil and gas exploration on the shelf for some time, pipelines to the north coast are a very real possibility. Near the bottom of a 2008 throne speech dripping with sustainability rhetoric, Premier Gordon Campbell made references to an “energy corridor” that will be a boon to the northern economy. Kitimat LNG Inc., which has received both federal and provincial approval for its liquid-natural-gas port facility, received a major boost recently when Mitsubishi Corporation signed an agreement to purchase 1.5 million tonnes per year of terminal capacity and to acquire a minority interest in the project. The deal is expected to be finalized by the end of March this year. There have also been a slew of pipeline proposals, including those by Pacific Trail Pipelines, Pembina Pipeline, and Kinder Morgan Inc.
Enbridge, though, appears closest to breaking ground. In an enthusiastic August 2005 letter to Enbridge, Richard Neufeld, then minister of energy, mines, and petroleum resources, endorsed the pipeline and discounted the moratorium. Neufeld wrote that it “is not directed at, and has no application to oil tankers sailing to or from British Columbia ports”, referring instead to a so-called tanker exclusionary zone that targets only ships from Alaska transiting B.C. waters while bound for the U.S. (Neufeld, who is leaving provincial politics this spring to take a seat in the Senate, refused to respond to requests from the Georgia Straight for an interview.)
The federal government mouths a similar line, but a former minister of natural resources, Gary Lunn, preferred to duck hard questions about the tanker moratorium. After the last federal election, Lunn was removed from the ministry and replaced by Toronto MP Lisa Raitt, a lawyer and former CEO of the Toronto Port Authority. Environmentalists can take little comfort in her nomination. At an October 6 Oakville, Ontario, chamber of commerce meeting, Raitt was on record cheering about the possibilities of increased tourism and shipping opportunities in the North, thanks to the melting polar ice cap. She is also known for her combative relationship in the past with a citizens’ group called Community Air, against which she launched a lawsuit in 2006 for its criticism of the port authority. Like her predecessor, Lunn, neither Raitt nor her communications staff returned calls from the Straight.
Although governments prefer to dance around the prickly moratorium question, conservation groups, many First Nations, and other critics say the reasons for a moratorium still stand: simply that tanker traffic and oil spills pose a serious threat to the B.C. coast. Since 2006, ocean tankers have been quietly sailing into Kitimat’s port laden with as many as 350,000 barrels each of condensate, bound by railcar for EnCana Corporation’s operations in Alberta. Northern Gateway’s Greenaway sees this as proof positive that tankers can travel safely into Douglas Channel. But Eric Swanson, corporate campaigner for the Dogwood Initiative, a B.C. land-reform organization, says such shipping traffic is in blatant defiance of what the public wants—a rock-solid moratorium on tanker traffic in B.C.’s inside waters. Swanson is not surprised that politicians would prefer to sidestep the tanker-traffic issue rather than address it head-on—it’s a potential political time bomb. According to a poll conducted by the public-opinion research firm Synovate, a majority of British Columbians polled across the political spectrum desire an outright ban on oil-tanker traffic along the coast.
“The problem is that the moratorium was issued as a policy statement but it was never written down. What is clear is that there is a huge appetite for a crystal-clear ban on oil tankers. Seventy-two percent of B.C. residents support it, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Swanson says.
Ian McAllister, executive director of the nonprofit Pacific Wild, believes the distinction between the so-called tanker exclusionary zone and a tanker moratorium is moot.
“If the issue is protecting the coastline of British Columbia, then what’s the difference between tankers coming from Alaska and tankers going into Kitimat? It’s ridiculous.”
And when Alaska and oil tankers are mentioned in the same sentence, the Exxon Valdez immediately comes to mind. This 1989 disaster dumped 49.5 million litres of crude oil into Prince William Sound, killing an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 22 orcas, and untold numbers of fish and other marine organisms. By most conservative measures, Caamano Sound poses a much greater navigational challenge than the Alaskan sound that has been relegated to its place in history as the site of one of the worst oil-spill disasters on record. At the time, U.S. coast guard admiral Paul Yost said the 16-kilometre-wide accident site in Prince William Sound “was not a treacherous area” and “Children could drive a tanker through it.”
“If supertankers move around this coast, it’s not a matter of if but when a major disaster on the scale of Exxon Valdez would happen,” says Kevin Smith, whose company, Maple Leaf Adventures, takes tourists on wildlife-viewing trips in the central coast’s Great Bear Rainforest and frequently sails the proposed tanker route. “Big oil has millions of dollars to lobby government. Sadly, our burgeoning conservation economy on the coast doesn’t have that ability.”
Rob Williams, a marine researcher from the University of British Columbia, agrees that the prospect of an oil spill in an area as biologically diverse as Caamano Sound is unpalatable.
“Oil tankers pose a lot of threats to marine mammals, including noise, oil spills, and ship strikes. We don’t exactly know why this area is so rich, but there are some long, narrow channels that serve as bottlenecks for food, making it easier for whales to feed,” Williams says. The researcher has been using acoustic monitors to gauge the level of underwater shipping noise, known to have an impact on the ability of toothed mammals, such as orcas and dolphins, to use echolocation for finding food. “Caamano Sound may be one of the last chances we have on this coastline to protect an acoustically quiet sanctuary for whales.”
While environmentalists and scientists ponder a B.C. coastline with regular oil-tanker traffic, Enbridge faces an equally tough sales job as it tries to win support for its fossil-fuel superhighway across north-central B.C. Enbridge can count on support from the mayors of Prince George, Prince Rupert, and Kitimat, who have been boosting the project and its promise of jobs and tax dollars in their cities. Conversely, Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena–Bulkley Valley, has serious reservations about a pipeline linking northern Alberta’s dirty oil sands with the B.C. coast, and he remains highly skeptical about Northern Gateway’s economic benefit. There will be short-term jobs in pipeline construction, Cullen admits. He says, though, that over the long haul, B.C. communities in the Interior and along the coast will shoulder the burden of environmental risk from spills—whether it be in fish-bearing streams or the marine environment—and they will not share in the profits that will accrue to the head offices of Enbridge in Calgary and firms like Syncrude and Shell.
“We approach projects on a risk-benefit basis, and I don’t think the case has been made that the risks are worth the benefit,” Cullen says on the phone from Ottawa. “The Conservatives’ approach is ”˜See no evil, hear no evil, and open up the oil corridor.’ This project is connected to the hyperdevelopment of the tar sands, and in the end we’re talking about 40 or 50 jobs that would be created by the pipeline. That’s your average Canadian Tire.”
Glenda Ferris is one citizen counting herself among those who have more to lose than gain. The proposed pipeline route passes within five kilometres of her rural property on Buck Flats Road west of Houston. She credits Enbridge representatives for making the effort to travel to the end of Buck Flats Road to meet with residents in November, but she says the meeting left her with more questions than answers. In her opinion, the open houses being held by Enbridge are more about fancy graphics and public relations than about incorporating citizen concerns into the ultimate design and routing of the pipeline.
“There are all kinds of questions about the potential of spills that they couldn’t or wouldn’t answer,” Ferris says. “It looks like someone just took out a map and drew a line between point A and point B. You have thousands of kilometres out there, and they put it right down the middle of our valley. We don’t want a pipeline here and don’t want tankers on the coast, but there’s a feeling that it’s almost a done deal. We’re frustrated.”
Buck Flats Road is just one back-yard brushfire that Enbridge may have to contend with. The proposed pipeline route crosses the territories of dozens of First Nations, each with specific concerns and wants, and smart companies know that it’s no longer acceptable to simply pay lip service to Native concerns. So does government. A landmark 2004 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of Haida Nation v. British Columbia and Weyerhaeuser, explicitly states that the Crown must consult with and accommodate First Nations even when questions of aboriginal rights and title have not been resolved. This means, at best, that the proposal could get bogged down in protracted band-by-band negotiations and, at worst, that it could end up in the Canadian court system. The Haisla First Nation, under the leadership of Chief Steve Wilson, is tentatively in support of Northern Gateway and stands to benefit greatly from the development of port facilities in Kitimat. Enbridge has already signed a number of protocol agreements with individual First Nations along the pipeline route—including the Yekooche First Nation and the Nee-Tahi-Buhn band near Burns Lake—that come with attached funds, ostensibly to enable First Nations to hire their own consultants, and arrive at an informed decision about the pipeline. Chief Ray Morris says Enbridge has offered the Nee-Tahi-Buhn $110,000 in capacity-building funds as well as a chance to purchase equity in the project.
“Our band is very familiar with pipelines. There have been so many proposals,” Morris says on the phone, adding that his band will support the project only if it translates into future revenue for members.
The mood isn’t nearly as accommodating elsewhere. The Council of Haida Nations is on record as saying it will never support tanker traffic in its waters. In an October 14, 2008, letter to Enbridge, Fraser Lake’s Nadleh Whut’en band expressed “significant concerns over the proposed pipelines and their environmental and socio-economic impacts” and ordered Enbridge employees and consultants to stay out of the band’s territory until a formal agreement is in place. This sentiment was echoed at the offices of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council in Prince George. Tribal Chief David Luggi represents eight bands in the region and views protocol agreements as an effort by Enbridge to purchase First Nations support for Northern Gateway. The proposed pipeline will cross the Stuart River, a major salmon system in Carrier Sekani territory, and member First Nations are rejecting the federal and provincial environmental review processes. In their place, Luggi says, the Carrier Sekani want a novel First Nations review that would be funded by government and use independent science and traditional knowledge to assess the impacts of the project on the environment, cultural heritage, and aboriginal rights and title. It would also allow adequate time and funds to fully engage and educate aboriginal communities and would delay a decision until “accommodations of infringements of aboriginal rights and title has taken place”.
“The B.C.–federal review process is focused on ensuring proper process rather than the substance of the project,” Luggi says. “The First Nations review-process framework would be applied to all new development proposals and not be restricted to the Enbridge proposal. We won’t participate in reviews if the funds are tied to any existing programs.”
The Carrier Sekani proposal was formally endorsed by other bands at a First Nations summit held in Vancouver last November. According to Luggi, the current process is tantamount to the project proponent trying to purchase First Nations support one band at a time.
Northern Gateway’s Greenaway denies that Enbridge is attempting to buy off Natives through protocol agreements. If the Carrier Sekani people disagree with the environmental-review process, he says, that’s a matter between them and government. He says he believes Enbridge is being as proactive as it can be in engaging community groups and First Nations well in advance of the official review process.
“The protocol agreements come with funding to allow First Nations to build capacity,” Greenaway says. “We are also offering opportunities for joint ventures and to become equity partners. These are still early days, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Despite gloomy economic circumstances that have caused capital to flee the oil sands, with projects that would have represented more than one million barrels of oil per day either postponed or cancelled since last December, Greenaway assures that Enbridge’s backers are thinking about the long term and remain committed to the project.
In Caamano Sound, the humpbacks and orcas are still feeding. Hartley Bay councillor Marven Robinson fears that oil tankers several football fields long plying the same waters as the myriad species that still thrive in traditional Gitga’at territory could become British Columbia’s oil-spill shame in the future. He’s also concerned that this energy-corridor juggernaut of pipelines and oil tankers is already a done deal in the minds of many politicians and oil-patch executives.
“Everybody around here is feeling that even if we say something against it, it’s going to go ahead anyways,” Robinson says.