Coastal waters are no place for oil tankers

Special to the Vancouver Sun, Earth day April 22 2010

By Josh Paterson, Jen Lash, Nikki Skuce, Gerald Amos, Pat Moss, Eric Swanson, Ian McAlister, Jennifer Rice, Julia Hill and Chris Genovali.

Federal studies have repeatedly concluded that oil tankers must be prohibited in some sensitive marine areas because of the severe risks.The Campbell government was quick to respond to the unprecedented coastal first nations declaration on March 23, which banned oil tankers carrying oilsands crude oil through the waters of their territories on the central and north Pacific coasts, and surrounding Haida Gwaii.

In effect, the government said that first nations -and the 75 per cent of British Columbians who support a ban on oil tankers -can’t say no to the catastrophic risks that come with oil supertankers crossing through our inside coastal waters.

Instead, everyone should wait and see what the federal government’s environmental assessment process has to say -a process, incidentally, that approves more than 99 per cent of all the projects submitted to it. The federal government, by ignoring the coastal first nations declaration altogether, has sent the same message.

We don’t think we need to spend millions of dollars in a process to tell us something that British Columbians and first nations have been sure about for 40 years -that oil tankers should not be permitted in the coastal waters of Hecate Strait, Dixon Entrance and Queen Charlotte Sound -the ancestral territories of coastal first nations between Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, and southern Alaska.

The risk of oil tankers in these dangerous waters has been studied and reported on over and over. Nearly 40 years ago, in 1972, the federal government declared a moratorium on oil tankers travelling through these waters because the risk of accidents was seen as being too severe.

Three other federal reports over the years have stated that the extreme risks were simply too great to bear, from the perspective of Canada’s most eminent scientists, first nations, and British Columbians in general. Moreover, the coastal first nations have now imposed their own unequivocal ban to prohibit oil tankers carrying Alberta oilsands crude.

They’ve been studying the issue closely since Enbridge first proposed this project more than five years ago, including the risks, and the potential benefits. It is not a decision that they took lightly.

Nothing in the last 40 years, and nothing in this project, has raised new information that suggests that crude oil super tankers ought to be allowed for the first time in our northern coastal waters.

In fact, what we have seen only points to the need to maintain and strengthen the commitment to protect the coast.

The tragedy of the Exxon Valdez 21 years ago showed us all exactly what the risk of oil tankers and oil spills means in real life: communities torn apart, coastal economies destroyed, and untold numbers of dead fish, marine mammals and other wildlife. To this day, the beaches remain as toxic in some areas as they were just after the spill, and many fish and wildlife populations have never recovered. Despite advances in shipping technology, oil spills continue at an alarming rate around the world.

There is no technology in the world that can provide full protection against human error, equipment failure, and resulting oil spills.

With such catastrophic and lasting consequences if even a single oil tanker spill occurs, it was perfectly reasonable to make an informed decision not to allow any oil tankers on the north coast and to stand by this decision today.

Given that British Columbians and first nations have worked to protect the coast from oil tankers for decades, the real question here is not whether the Enbridge pipelines and tankers project should go ahead.

What needs to be asked is whether we should be considering allowing oil tankers at all, in light of the long-standing status quo, and the more recent coastal first nations ban.

By launching its review process the federal government has ignored this essential preliminary question.

Instead of ignoring the coastal first nations declaration banning oilsands crude-oil tankers, and telling them to wait for the outcome of a federal review process that approves almost every single project it considers, both the Canadian and B.C. governments should listen to what they have to say.

First nations have spoken as loudly as ever in provincial history. They have exercised their ancestral laws, rights and responsibilities to protect the lands and the waters of their territories.

If governments ignore their decision, it is virtually certain that first nations will take steps to enforce their declaration under their own laws and in the courts. Governments should not let it come to that.

If our governments are truly listening to first nations -and to the 75 per cent of British Columbians who support a ban on oil tankers in coastal waters -they should show leadership and protect the north coast by recognizing the coastal first nations ban, and by enshrining the ban in federal law.

We don’t need years of further process to do what British Columbians have always known is right.

Josh Paterson is staff counsel with West Coast Environmental Law; Jen Lash is executive director of Living Oceans Society; Nikki Skuce is senior energy campaigner with ForestEthics; Gerald Amos is with the Headwaters Initiative; Pat Moss is with Friends of Wild Salmon; Eric Swanson is corporate campaigner for the Dogwood Initiative; Ian McAllister is with Pacific Wild; Jennifer Rice is the energy campaigner for the North Coast, T. Buck Suzuki Foundation; Julia Hill is with the Skeenawild Conservation Trust; and Chris Genovali is with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

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