My paternal grandfather (actually, my father’s step-father, but we made no distinction) died a few years ago, having lived into his nineties. The life he lived is familiar to many Canadians of that generation. His childhood was spent on a Saskatchewan farm, attending a one-room schoolhouse. His family fled Saskatchewan during a severe drought in the late 1920s and resettled on a small, subsistence farm near Prince Rupert, British Columbia. I don’t think he finished high school. He did an apprenticeship and became a tradesman, working as a pipefitter and industrial plumber. He went wherever there was work, ending up on industrial sites all over BC and Alberta. He continued to work into his eighties, doing small jobs, one of the last being a large water-powered clock in a shopping mall in Nanaimo. He kept a small boat in his retirement, fishing for enough salmon to pot and freeze for his own use. He never had much money, but always lived within his means. He was a kind and gentle man, always thoughtful and never with a harsh word for anyone, the type of person we all want for our neighbour.
In the 1950s, he worked in what is now Kitimat, BC, where he and thousands of other workers helped build a hydroelectric dam and large aluminum smelter. Workers came from all over to work on the Kitimat project, which was carved out of the forest. I remember him showing me photos he took while hiking and fishing with an Australian co-worker on his days off. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he moved to Alberta and worked on the first tar sands development, the Syncrude facility. I deliberately use the term “tar sands” because that was what it was called, neither my grandfather nor anyone else called it anything different. “Oil sands” is a propaganda word, which was later created for the same reason those who spread waste-water treatment sludge on farmland call it “biosolids”, so that you get the impression it is something other than what it is.
Kitimat and the tar sands have consequently always had for me a connection through the memory of my grandfather. Recently, the energy company Enbridge has proposed to create a physical connection by building a pipeline between them, called the Northern Gateway. Tar sands companies would like to expand exports to the US and to Asia. A proposal to build a new pipeline from Alberta to refineries in the southern US, referred to as the Keystone XL project, is in limbo at the moment. There is considerable opposition to new pipelines in the US, especially among people living along the route who enjoy few economic benefits but must accept the risk of potential accidents. The state of Nebraska, where residents are heavily dependent on underground aquifers for water, had led opposition to Keystone XL. The US State Department, which must approve international pipelines, has required that TransCanada pipelines, the company that would build Keystone XL, provide alternative routing options. The proposal is a political hot potato. Despite a very undiplomatic amount of lobbying and pressure applied by the Canadian federal government,* the outcome remains uncertain.
The uncertainty over Keystone has the federal government and the tar sands producers eager to get working on the Northern Gateway project. Construction is not going to happen anytime soon; the proposal must first go through public consultations organized by the National Energy Board. These started last week, and approximately 4,000 people and organizations have asked to speak. Most are opposed to the project, as are most First Nations along the proposed pipeline route. In response, the federal Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, has engaged in name-calling and sowing conspiracy theories, publicly accused those opposing the pipeline of being radicals, and suggesting that wealthy Americans are behind the opposition. The heavy foreign ownership of tar sands producers or his own government’s deliberate meddling in US politics appears to have been lost on the minister. His rant caught me by surprise, and seems a bit beneath a bright, well-educated (McGill & Harvard) former investment banker like Mr Oliver.
I’d like to ignore the name-calling and look at some of the facts. Having access to Asian markets would be economically advantageous to the tar sands producers, and these companies create tens of thousands of jobs directly and indirectly in Alberta. The pension funds of many Canadians hold shares in tar sands companies, and governments receive royalties, so directly or indirectly, the economic benefits of the tar sands extend well beyond northern Alberta. Construction of the pipeline would create a large number of construction jobs in the short term, a smaller number of maintenance jobs over the longer term, and royalty payments for those along its route. Kitimat has received large, ocean-going freighters for decades, coming and going from the aluminum plant. The port already has a license to tranship liquid natural gas. Creating new port facilities to connect ocean-going oil tankers with the proposed pipeline would create additional jobs and income there.
Just as the economic benefits of the tar sands are well-known, so, too, are the environmental costs in terms of land degradation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions (click here and here for links to two of many peer-reviewed scientific studies). New pipelines to Kitimat and/or the US would expand tar sands production and the consequent environmental impacts. The pipeline will have environmental impacts for residents of BC; anyone who argues otherwise is selling something. The proposed Northern Gateway route is approximately the shortest distance from the tar sands to a deep-water port on the Pacific. There are other port options (e.g. Prince Rupert, Vancouver), but these would require a much longer pipeline. As it is, the proposed pipeline would need to traverse mountains, forests, and thousands of watercourses large and small to reach Kitimat. Pipelines can and do spring leaks; there is no such thing as a leak-proof or leak-free one. Materials fails, human error in construction or maintenance can occur, and natural events that can damage pipelines, like floods and landslides, happen. The impacts of pipeline failures depend on what’s being transported; natural gas and oil leaks present different risks, the latter being of greater concern. In the case of the northern gateway, the pipeline would be transporting bitumen – an oily sludge – to Kitimat, and returning chemical thinners that are imported and used to make tar sands material more viscous. Neither would be welcome in a salmon stream.
There will be an increase in the amount of hydrocarbons spilled into the ocean waters off Kitimat if this pipeline goes through; that is not a risk but an inevitability, as shown by established research. The loading and transporting of hydrocarbons to ocean-going vessels invariably leads to spills. A 2003 study by the US National Research Council states that in the decade of the 1990s, there were 48 oil spills into US coastal waters from pipelines and 335 from marine terminals, releasing a combined volume of over 3 million gallons of oil. Even without any catastrophic spills, an oil pipeline terminal to Kitimat will release oil into the environment cumulatively through small, multiple spills on an ongoing basis. I have no way of forecasting how much will be spilled and what harm it would cause; only that it won’t be zero.
The greatest concern expressed by residents of the BC coast so far is the increased possibility of a catastrophic tanker spill, like that of the Exxon Valdez, which spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. Kitimat’s coastal environment is similar to that of Prince William Sound in terms of wildlife, but different in its morphology; ships must follow the long, narrow Wright Sound for over 30km before reaching open ocean. The ratio of open water to coastline means that any spill from a tanker would quickly reach shore, which is where it poses the greatest harm to wildlife. Post-Exxon Valdez studies show that animal populations can eventually recover from even large oil spills in this type of environment, but the long term ecosystem impacts persist for many, many years. This is particularly worrying for people whose diets, livelihoods and incomes depend on foods harvested from coastal areas, and there are many such families, First Nations and otherwise, along the BC coast.
There are technical requirements that can be implemented to reduce the risk of accidental spills from tankers – insisting on double-hulled tanker construction, restricting movements of ships during heavy weather, and so forth. But accidents still happen. Yesterday, a popular cruise ship struck rocks off the coast of Tuscany, along a route it has been following regularly for years, during calm weather. The BC Ferries corporation’s flagship ferry Queen of the North ran aground in 2006 along the BC coast; last year a different BC ferry crashed against the pier in Nanaimo. These are crashes involving vessels that routinely ply the same waters on an ongoing basis. The large oil tankers that would be coming to Kitimat would include vessels captained and crewed by people much less familiar with BC coastal waters. Those responsible for accidents – and the companies that employ them – always trot out a list of excuses after the fact why such events are exceptional; reality is that the risk of a shipping accident is never, ever zero. More ship traffic, more risk, it’s as simple as that.
In summary, the facts are fairly straightforward. If built, the Northern Gateway pipeline would result in greater development of the tar sands, higher levels of exports, and a corresponding increase in revenues to the oil and pipeline companies involved, to their shareholders, and to those owed royalties. There will be an increase in employment in BC and Alberta over the short and longer term. Economists will argue over exactly how much these benefits would amount to; they will be significant in any event. The costs and impacts are also significant. There will be increased extraction of oil sands, increasing the regional load of air and water pollution and land degradation, and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. There will be oil spilled into Kitimat’s Wright Sound and along the pipeline route from time-to-time on an ongoing basis. With luck and very careful construction and management, these spills will be small in volume, infrequent, and have relatively small long-term impacts on wildlife and critical resources. There already exists the chance of large oil spills in Wright Sound given the existing ship traffic; the chances of occurrence and scale of the potential impacts will be increased many-fold if Northern Gateway goes through. The pipeline creates a new risk of environmental contamination to lands and rivers of the BC interior that have not previously been traversed by pipelines. If luck and/or management practices fail, the worst-case scenario is many times worse than what happened with Exxon Valdez.
For residents along the pipeline route and in Kitimat, the decision of whether to support the Northern Gateway is a tremendously difficult one. The jobs and added income would be most welcome, even if the lion’s share of the new wealth created goes to the oil companies. However, this new revenue stream comes with a potentially very nasty downside, a risk residents would be accepting for themselves and for their children and their children. Once built, you can’t go back. My grandfather, who helped build the first tar sands project and the first industrial facility at Kitimat with, literally, his own two hands, would have understood the dilemma BC residents face, and would have respected their opinions, whatever those may be. Although his upbringing was as far from Harvard and Bay Street as one can get, he would never, ever, have called people names if they didn’t agree with him, especially when their families’ livelihoods and well-being were at stake. My grandfather was a man.
*Were the American government to pull the same stunt up here, the screams of self-righteous indignation would be deafening. The extent of the lobbying is quite astounding. For example, last year officials at Canadian consulates in the US were ordered to collect names of businesses that might benefit directly or indirectly from tar sands projects, exports, or the Keystone project, and transmit these names to a database created at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. Canadian officials would then contact these people and pressure them to pressure their own elected officials to support Keystone XL. I hear these things from living in Ottawa; here's Jeffrey Simpson's more detailed commentary on it.