ince 2004, scientists have been travelling up and down the B.C. coast on the Achiever, a steel-hulled, 22-metre sloop owned by the Raincoast Conservation Society. In this time, they have covered more than 14,000 kilometres, recorded more than 2,000 sightings of marine mammals, and logged almost 15,000 sightings of marine birds.
From 2005 to 2008, they focused their efforts on the Queen Charlotte Basin, which stretches from north of Vancouver Island to Dixon Entrance on the Alaskan border. The scientists and crew weathered hurricane-force winds along proposed oil-tanker routes, according to a report released in late March called What’s at Stake: The Cost of Oil on British Columbia’s Priceless Coast.
Raincoast’s senior scientist, Paul Paquet, told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview that they could find no “good route” for tankers. “Pretty much any choice puts the coast in jeopardy,” Paquet said. “That was pretty striking for us, because we thought a lot about that.”
The Raincoast report—an exhaustive 60-page survey of coastal marine mammals, seabirds, and land-based mammals that depend on the marine environment—was made public less than a month before a BP drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, spewing almost 800,000 litres of oil a day into the water.
Raincoast’s executive director, Chris Genovali, told the Straight by phone that his group conducted about six years of intensive fieldwork recording the abundance and distribution of wildlife in Hecate Strait—east of Haida Gwaii, stretching from Bella Bella north to Prince Rupert—because there was a “big gap” around the potential consequences of an oil spill on the West Coast. This was followed by a year and a half of data analysis, working with scientists from North Carolina’s Duke University.
“We’re witnessing a recovery of a few different marine-mammal species after a long, dark history of exploitation of these animals,” Genovali said. “Now as we see this recovery starting to happen, are we going to put them at risk by allowing tanker routes to go through their feeding grounds and risk their habitat with the threat of a catastrophic oil spill? As an example, more sea otters died in the Exxon Valdez spill [in 1989] than exist on the entire central and northern coast of British Columbia.”
As the Straight went to press, BP had still not capped its leaking well, which is 1.5 kilometres below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico. Now into its fourth week, the oil spill poses a significant threat to marine life and the fishing industry. According to the Tucson, Arizona–based Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Department of the Interior exempted BP’s offshore-drilling plan from an environmental review and didn’t require the company to provide “a scenario for a potential blowout from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons”.
The timing of BP’s spectacular failure couldn’t be worse for Toronto-based pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. It has indicated that it will file a formal application this month to federal regulators for a new $5.5-billion pipeline project that will be reviewed jointly by the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. If approved, the company’s Northern Gateway Project would move oil from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat, where it would be shipped in oil tankers through the Queen Charlotte Basin.
The Northern Gateway Project would include two underground 1,172-kilometre pipelines and 14 storage tanks. One pipeline would import 193,000 barrels a day of a natural-gas byproduct called condensate, which thins oil, from Kitimat to a destination near Bruderheim, Alberta. The other pipeline would export 525,000 barrels a day of oil—created from bitumen and condensate—to Kitimat. Enbridge estimates there would be 220 ship calls per year.
This is not the only megaproject that might move oil and petrochemical products between Alberta and the north coast, according to the Living Oceans Society. Its Web site states that Kinder Morgan “proposes” to expand its pipeline system from the tar sands to Kitimat, which could require up to 14 tankers per month to export the oil. (Kinder Morgan spokesperson Andrew Galarnyk told the Straight by phone, “While we considered this as an option some time ago, we do not have a pipeline proposal to go through Kitimat at this time.”)
“If they allowed tankers on this coast, it’s a slippery slope to offshore oil and gas development,” Living Oceans Society executive director Jennifer Lash told the Straight by phone. “I think the minute that happens, the province will be out there pushing it as hard as you can possibly imagine. And I think it’s very, very scary for us to start going down that road.”
Meanwhile, the B.C. Liberal government continues to keep the door open to the possibility of offshore drilling for oil and gas. Shell Canada drilled 14 wells in the late 1960s between Barkley Sound and Hecate Strait. The program was halted in the wake of a devastating offshore-drilling-related spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. This led the Canadian government to impose a moratorium on offshore exploration and tanker traffic on the West Coast in 1972.
Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, told the Straight by phone that the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates the inadequacy of technology to save a coastline after an oil spill. “They always like to say they have the state-of-the-art technology and there will be no damage,” he said. “Well, look at them in the Gulf. The vessels that are being used to try and mop that up are larger than anything we’ve seen on the coast. They’re actually accomplishing nothing.”
Enbridge and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers were given ample opportunity to comment, but did not respond to the Straight’s requests for interviews by deadline. Enbridge’s Web site features three videos produced by former television reporter Stuart McNish that highlight the safety records of double-hulled tankers leaving large oil ports in the Shetland Islands, Norway, and Sweden.
In a brochure, Enbridge promises that all vessels entering the Kitimat Marine Terminal would be “modern and double-hulled” and that they would be limited to eight to 12 knots in marine channels. Tankers carrying oil and condensate would also be guided by escort tugs captained by “master mariners”. In addition, there will be an “advanced radar system” built for the benefit of all marine traffic on the northwest coast.
“In all the incidents I’ve investigated in 40 years—in terms of the oil industry and production, refining, and pipeline—I have yet to have an accident show up,” he said. “It’s always a series of multilayered events that get linked.”
He noted that most people think of crude oil as containing a range of products, including gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, residual, and gas oils. In a spill at sea, the lighter products remain on the surface, whereas heavier components sink underwater. “That’s why we get this argument: should we use dispersants or should we burn it or should we boom it?” Kuprewicz said. “It may or may not be a problem in a big ocean, but in a bay or a sensitive area like around British Columbia, you’ve got to think differently.”
Oil from the tar sands is created from black rock called bitumen, which is heated to extract petroleum. Kuprewicz noted that the combination of bitumen and condensate is blacker and heavier than conventional crude oil. Oil made from bitumen is also more apt to sink below the surface at sea. “You’ve got to understand that and recognize that in the design of your pipeline, but also in your spill response, because this stuff isn’t going to spill like normal oil,” he stated.
Kuprewicz pointed out that when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling 42 million litres of oil, officials spent two days arguing over whether to burn the oil or use dispersants. In the meantime, oil kept spreading, and by the time they tried to boom it, the weather had turned, exacerbating the disaster. Within a week, it extended over 140 kilometres. According to a 2003 paper in Science, the spill killed 1,000 to 2,800 sea otters, 250,000 seabirds, and 302 harbour seals. In addition, the Raincoast report notes, 15 transient orcas and 14 resident orcas died, and Pacific herring and pigeon guillemot populations had not recovered 20 years after the disaster.
Not surprisingly, Kuprewicz suggested that energy regulators should maintain a “little bit of skepticism” and a “little bit of cynicism” when hearing arguments from oil and gas companies. “The industry doesn’t have all the experts,” he said. “I come from a generation where we had multiple levels of checks and balances because you could kill a lot of people real quick.”
The Raincoast report shows that a lot of wildlife could also be killed if the oil and gas industry isn’t careful. To cite one example, it mentions a small recovering population of sea otters that ranges up the coast north about 55 kilometres to the southern border of Caamaño Sound, east of Haida Gwaii near the mainland.
Paquet pointed out that even though it’s just 900 kilometres from the Washington state border to Alaska, there are approximately 27,000 kilometres of shoreline around hundreds of islands. “What differentiates that coastline from the others is that it is primarily an archipelago,” he said. “So the potential for shoreline contamination is greatly magnified as compared with areas such as the Gulf Coast, where there are fewer islands and therefore less exposure.”
The report notes that at least 27 species of marine mammals have been seen along the Pacific coast, including 14 that are regularly spotted. Pacific white-sided dolphins range widely, whereas sea otters stay in specific areas. Some creatures, such as humpback whales, fin whales, and orcas, are designated as “threatened”, whereas others, such as elephant seals and harbour seals, are not at risk of going extinct. There are even significant differences within certain categories. For instance, humpback and fin whales are filter feeders, whereas orcas have teeth and eat salmon.
In researching marine mammals, the scientists employed “density surface modelling” to identify hot spots where these creatures were concentrated. The report notes that each sighting could include anywhere from one to more than 100 animals. Paquet said that high concentrations of marine mammals overlapped proposed tanker routes.
In addition, there are more than 120 species of marine birds along the coast, including giant albatrosses. The predominant group, according to the report, are alcids (murrelets, murres, and auklets), which spend most of their time at sea and which are “particularly vulnerable” to catastrophic oil spills. Ancient murrelets and marbled murrelets have been designated in Canada as species at risk. “More than half the world’s population of ancient murrelets nest on the islands of Haida Gwaii,” the report states.
Paquet also pointed out that terrestrial animals could be at risk from an oil spill because they are dependent on marine life. For instance, sea wolves have colonized islands up to 13 kilometres out at sea in Hecate Strait. Maritime bears’ meat diets are dependent on seafood. For them, the death of salmon stocks and even small beach crabs can have serious consequences.
Moreover, Paquet emphasized that most people don’t realize how much animal and bird degradation has occurred along the West Coast during the past 200 to 300 years. This tends to cause human beings to underestimate long-term population trends.
The report notes that between 10,000 and 50,000 tonnes of baleen and sperm whales were processed annually from coastal and offshore waters before whaling ended in the 1960s and 1970s. Steller sea lions have only recovered after being protected from culling in 1970. “For each of us, our reference seems to be the time we were born and became aware of our environment,” Paquet said. “Change that occurs is relative to that. And that, of course, is a mistake, because we need to be looking back. That would be one of the key points. A second point would be that change has accelerated in recent years.”
Some members of B.C. First Nations are perhaps more conscious of longer-term trends, having grown up with tales of abundant salmon runs and bountiful whale populations. Sterritt of Coastal First Nations said there’s a key difference between coastal and Interior aboriginal people. “We may have had our ass kicked by the fishery dying, but we still have enough food to survive on the coast,” he noted. “The critical thing about that is it doesn’t leave our youth with this sense of hopelessness. They still have pride in who they are. They can go out and catch salmon and halibut and cod—and dig clams and cockles—and, literally, they could sustain themselves as they have done for 10,000 years based on what’s there.”
This is one reason why he’s so opposed to offshore drilling and Enbridge’s proposed pipeline. Enbridge has acknowledged that it had 65 “reportable spills” in 2007 and another 93 “reportable spills” in 2008. “It’s like every week they have a spill,” Sterritt said.
Lash of the Living Oceans Society pointed out that First Nations along the central and north coast, as well as the Haida, have declared a moratorium on tankers in their traditional territories. And Sterritt said that aboriginal people will be using “every process available” to challenge Enbridge’s proposal. “Many of them are within Coastal First Nations, but there are also those along the pipeline who will use different processes,” he claimed.
In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a forest-licensing dispute that the duty to consult with the Council of the Haida Nation is proportionate to “the seriousness of the potentially adverse effect upon the right or title claimed”. In addition, the court stated that the Crown “cannot cavalierly run roughshod over Aboriginal interests where claims affecting these interests are being seriously pursued in the process of treaty negotiation”.
Sterritt said that Enbridge is trying to claim that its pipeline is for the “greater good”. However, he maintained that the Haida decision as well as the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1997 Delgamuukw decision—which recognized and defined aboriginal title—will have considerable bearing on how things proceed.
“I think you would be hard-pressed to convince a judge that exporting unprocessed crude oil to Asia is in the public good,” Sterritt said. “Is that in the public good for Canada? I don’t think so.”
Near the end of the interview, he added: “I think the majority of the public in British Columbia agrees with us on this.”