Courting the Next Exxon Valdez

British Columbia's Coast Hangs in the Balance

Counterpunch, Weekend Edition, April 2 – 4, 2010

By Chris Genovali, Paul Paquet and Misty MacDuffee

In this part of the world the month of March is, to borrow a phrase from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one that will live in infamy; it is the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster that took place in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.
Enbridge Inc.’s proposal to build a twin pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to the north coast of British Columbia, Canada, means we could see supertankers, like the Exxon Valdez, in BC waters transporting oil to hydrocarbon-hungry markets abroad. The two pipelines would run 1,170 kilometers (about 727 miles) in length, between an inland terminal at Bruderheim, Alberta, and a marine terminal near Kitimat, British Columbia.

This presents a very 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. The cost of the Exxon Valdez spill has been estimated at $9.5 billion, of which Exxon paid $1 billion, with taxpayers footing the rest of the bill. But does that even begin to cover the price of a pod of killer whales driven to extinction or the demise of a coastal fishing community’s way of life?

The BC coast is a fragile archipelago with a boundary between land and ocean that changes by the hour, by the season and over millennia. The fragmented island and inlet nature of this ecosystem, nourished by the waters of the North Pacific, has fostered more diversity of plants and animals than occurs anywhere else in North America. The assembly of iconic animals like whales, dolphins, wolves and bears makes the BC coast qualitatively different from most other exceptional places in the world. Distinctively, all these mammals, together with another 120 species of birds, are tied to the sea.


However, the very thing that has fostered this rich diversity also makes it fragile. British Columbia’s coastal ecosystem is an ecological treasure of species that can be lost in a blink of an eye. Twenty-seven thousand kilometers of labyrinthine seaboard place this web of diversity much more at risk than its 900-kilometer length (as the crow flies) would suggest.

One hopes the Obama administration decision to open up, as AP reported, “a huge swath of East Coast waters and other protected areas in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico” to off shore oil drilling, is not a harbinger of things to come in other coastal regions of the continent.

Canadians may eventually conclude that an oil corridor on the BC 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; Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s just-released report, “What’s at Stake – The cost of oil on British Columbia’s priceless coast,” aims to do just that, because if the powers that be 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 BC’s rocky coastline daily. Twice a week, over 500,000 barrels of the world’s dirtiest

oil would be shipped out and condensate shipped in. This prompts the question, is the benefit to Alberta and the shareholders of Enbridge Inc. from supplying Asian and American markets with oil worth the gamble, even if it means subjecting the BC coast to the risk of a catastrophic spill?

Not surprisingly, the ocean, the near shore environments and the coastlines of BC have been degraded by human activities. Many marine mammals, land mammals and seabirds that rely on the marine environment for their livelihood are already burdened by petroleum-based pollutants. Some of these stressed species (e.g., certain whale species) are already genetically compromised; the result of being driven to near extinction by a century of commercial exploitation and persecution. With lowered genetic diversity (from bottlenecking), 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 only 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” federal 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. Using an ecosystem perspective, these salmon runs could then be managed to sustain terrestrial species, such as coastal grizzly bears and wolves, that earn part of their living from the sea. Although the debate over salmon management in this province 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 coast of British Columbia 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 favor of urgent action to counter these perils.

Changing the way we manage humans and their activities might be enough to give our tired maritime environment the reprieve needed to recover and become healthy again. We are poised at a crossroads. Polling on which direction to follow shows that for most British Columbians, the preferred path is an oil-free coast. The question remains, however, whether those within government who will determine the fate of BC’s coast recognize exactly what’s at stake. Maybe more importantly, do they care?

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

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Chelsea Greer hanging a wildlife camera.