B.C. oil profits may come at a high price

Fragile ecosystems at enormous risk if pipeline proposal moves ahead

The AT1 population of Alaskan transient killer whales were in Prince William Sound at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 13 members of the 22 member pod died after the spill and more the following year.

By Chris Genovali, Paul Paquet and Misty MacDuffee


Today is March 23. In this part of the world March 23 is, to borrow a phrase from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a day that will live in infamy. It is the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.
Enbridge Inc.’s proposal to build a twin pipeline from Alberta’s oilsands to the north coast of British Columbia means we could see supertankers, like the Exxon Valdez, in our waters transporting oil to hydrocarbon-hungry markets abroad.

The two pipelines would run 1,170 kilometres, between an inland terminal at Bruderheim, Alta., and a marine terminal near Kitimat. This presents a significant threat to coastal marine species and ecosystems, as well as to the food supply and livelihoods of First Nations and coastal communities.

Attaching a dollar value to the damage that spilled oil does to marine ecosystems is an impossible task. Canadians may eventually conclude that an oil corridor on the coast is more important than the health of our environment, or the well-being of the flora and fauna that live there. The public, however, should be properly and clearly informed as to the risks and tradeoffs.

If we get this wrong, the penalty will be costly.

Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt summed up the threat posed by oil tankers: “The minute there is tanker traffic, there is damage to a way of life.”  If the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline is constructed, oil tankers at least as big as the Exxon Valdez would ply B.C.’s rocky coastline daily. Twice a week, more than 500,000 barrels of the world’s dirtiest oil would be shipped out and condensate shipped in.

Is the benefit to Alberta and the shareholders of Enbridge from supplying Asian and American markets with oil worth the gamble, even if it means subjecting the B.C. coast to the risk of a catastrophic spill? Polling indicates most British Columbians would respond with a resounding no.

Not surprisingly, the ocean, near-shore environments, and coastlines have been degraded by human activities. Many marine mammals, land mammals, and seabirds that rely on the marine environment for their livelihood arealready burdened by petroleum-based pollutants.

Some of these stressed species are genetically compromised, the result of being driven to near-extinction by a century of commercial exploitation and persecution. With lowered genetic diversity, the ability of coastal species to respond or adapt to additional disturbance is greatly reduced.  Add to this the implications of a rapidly disappearing food base, resulting from overfishing, destruction of habitat and a warming ocean.

Alarmingly, these changes are occurring faster than we can understand them, although it is clear that further disruptions could be disastrous, especially when combined with a major oil spill. By themselves these cumulative trends have serious consequences, but ongoing climate change is creating further and unpredictable disturbances.

Ocean environments might already be approaching a threshold where established ecological systems lose their resiliency and begin to unravel. Climate change could be the catalyst that tips the already fragile balance. Ironically, the choice to lift the oil tanker moratorium and approve the pipeline would end up contributing to the disruption.

Given the diminished and fragile condition of our coastal environment, we need to begin treating the ocean as an unhealthy patient in desperate need of care. We know that the primary problem is chronic unsustainable use and abuse, so our focus now must be to halt, slow, and reverse destructive activities, while eliminating the possibility of any new threats.

The bottom line is that the 35-year-old “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” moratorium on oil tanker traffic must be legislated and codified into law. In this same vein, changes to fisheries management and securing habitat protection could rebuild the region’s more than 2,500 salmon runs.

Although the debate over salmon management is complex and contentious, the discussion could be rendered moot in the event of a major oil spill.  Alaska’s Prince William Sound had the “advantage” of salmon populations that were trending upward when the Exxon Valdez disaster hit; the B.C. coast faces a preset disadvantage with salmon populations in decline.

Our concerns are not new, nor are the environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and pending threats that have precipitated them. They are, however, a powerful argument in favour of urgent action to counter these perils. Although easy to confuse value with price, the question remains: Is Canadian society willing to sacrifice the integrity of B.C.’s coastal environment for the sole ambition of monetary profit?

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation. Paul Paquet is its senior scientist and Misty MacDuffee is a biologist with Raincoast’s wild salmon program.

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