Tanker traffic in an oil-spill-sensitive world

The story so far:

The risks of oil tanker traffic in B.C.’s fragile northern waters rose to the federal agenda in the 1970s, after the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was completed. Seeing increased supertanker traffic in the Pacific Northwest, Pierre Trudeau’s government established an informal ban on oil tanker traffic in Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound in 1972 that kept tankers about 100 kilometres from shore. Today, pressure to open the area to tankers is mounting, spurred on by the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project – a plan to build a pipeline capable of bringing 525,000 barrels of oil a day from Edmonton to the remote port of Kitimat, B.C., where supertankers would load up and sail to Asia. The Harper government maintains there is no moratorium in B.C.’s coastal waters, only a voluntary exclusion zone, making future tanker traffic a possibility. In June, federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said he’d make the ban official. Two NDP MPs have already introduced private members bills in support of a ban.

Political calculations:

Supporters of the Northern Gateway Project claim it will safely rejuvenate B.C.’s northern economy. Enbridge maintains the pipeline, and its attending tankers, would pump thousands of jobs and millions in property tax revenues into the region. The company has also promised safeguards around supertankers operating in B.C. waters, including reduced speed and local marine pilots to guide the ships into harbour. But locally, the risk to the environment seems to trump the economic promises. Natives and environmentalists fear tanker traffic in the treacherous shipping route will inevitably lead to an oil spill that would devastate sensitive coastal ecosystems. Nine native groups have issued a declaration against the pipeline and tanker traffic. Eighty per cent of B.C. residents support a ban on oil tankers, according to a 2010 poll commissioned by the environmental group Dogwood Initiative. Provincially, the NDP support a tanker moratorium, while the Liberals reject a ban and trust the environmental assessment process to ensure projects can be built and operated safely.

“Life the Moratorium” by Gerry Martin

The most important aspect of any discussion on a tanker moratorium on Canada’s west coast is to remember that there is no tanker moratorium. What exists is a voluntary tanker exclusion zone which only applies to tankers transiting south from Alaska to ensure sufficient incident response time. It is gravely misleading to argue whether there is or isn’t a tanker moratorium. Doing so curtails the real problem for us on the west coast, which is the coast is at risk today – even without any of the projects being planned.

Without even considering the Enbridge project, our coast is about to undergo a significant increase in commercial shipping activity. Currently, the port of Kitimat is due for expansion; the port of Prince Rupert has planned expansions at both Ridley and Fairview Terminals; and the Port of Stewart has been looking to expand marine traffic in and out of that port. Yet if the Queen of the North was to sink today where it sank four years ago – what will have changed? Nothing. This precisely is the real problem. Nothing has fundamentally changed here to ensure another ferry or other vessel doesn’t sink in our waters again.
Instead of just saying ‘no’ to tanker traffic, let’s instead seize the opportunity we have to change the risks that exist on our coast, an opportunity to introduce marine safeguards such as tug escorting and operational conditions. A comprehensive plan could establish emergency response capabilities equal to what is in place in Alaska and exceeding that required by Transport Canada and allow us in northwest B.C. the chance to benefit from responsible economic development.

No matter whether you’re a commercial fisherman, a tourist operator, a barge business owner or even a commercial shipper, marine safety enhancements would not only ensure the likelihood of accidents will be drastically reduced but will also significantly improve our ability to protect our beautiful coast – making it safer for everyone.

Gerry Martin is president of the KT Industrial Development Society in Kitimat

“Make it Permanent” by Eric Swanson

There is already a ban on crude oil tankers through Canada’s Pacific north coast. It was announced this spring by the nine first nations that live there. It is unequivocal. If, as British Columbians, we are the kind of people who refuse to pit our communities against each other, if we recognize the authority of a decision made over a place by the people who live there, then we should respect the decision of coastal first nations and follow suit with a federal, legislated ban.

There is no existing crude oil tanker traffic in the area. The choice to ban these tankers is not one of environment over economy. It is a choice of a sustainable economy over an unsustainable economy. Economies are created by people. We choose, collectively, what they look like and how they function. Sustainable economies allow our children and grandchildren to be born with essentially the same opportunities and resources as now. Unsustainable economies cumulatively degrade and deplete.

Allowing oil tankers would threaten the foundations of a sustainable north coast economy. Where oil moves, oil spills. Even from double-hulled tankers; even with tugboats around; even with pilots on board. Machines break and humans err. If oil were to spill on our coast, if it soaked the beaches of our Great Bear Rainforest, we couldn’t clean it all up. The Exxon Valdez and the BP spill show us that a single spill can devastate lives, economies, ecosystems and cultures.
There’s no need to take the risk. We’ll be fine without exporting more oil to China and Asia. When Enbridge, the supertanker proponent, was invited to community forums in northern B.C. by MP Nathan Cullen to discuss alternative ways to create jobs, they weren’t interested. We should be.

Know that there are only two kinds of federal politicians in B.C., those who support a legislated north coast ban – the Liberals and NDP – and those who don’t: the Conservatives.

Eric Swanson is the No Tankers campaign director for the Dogwood Initiative.

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