Is America’s Chernobyl in Canada’s future?

Guest Commentary by Chris Genovali for Buzzflash

Many Canadians have been anxiously following the unfolding Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster and are experiencing a deep sense of unease as they scan the daily media reports. Such foreboding is clearly understandable as one can’t help thinking this might be a nightmarish peek into one possible future for British Columbia as federal and provincial politicians here in Canada lay the groundwork to transform our Pacific coast into an “energy corridor.”  They dream of seismic testing, offshore drilling, pipelines from the tar sands, and oil tankers plying our rocky coast; this is what passes as visionary in the age of government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations.

Carl Pope, former chairman of the Sierra Club in the United States, has dubbed the British Petroleum catastrophe “America’s Chernobyl.” U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, not exactly known as being a fervent environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination, describes the potential outlook for the Gulf Coast oil spill as “a very grave scenario.”

In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, Canadian federal opposition parties are calling for emergency hearings before the Commons Natural Resources Committee to discuss the need for more stringent safeguards against oil spills in Canada’s Arctic. But the public needs to be properly and clearly informed as to the risks and tradeoffs with regard to proposed oil development and transport for the BC coast as well; Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s recently released report, “What’s at Stake — The cost of oil on British Columbia’s priceless coast,” is designed to do just that; we encourage you to go to the Raincoast website and download the report.

Enbridge Inc.’s proposal to build a twin pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to the north coast of BC means we could see supertankers on the coast transporting oil to Asian and American markets. Enbridge proposes to construct and operate two pipelines, 1170 kilometers in length, between an inland terminal at Bruderheim, Alberta, and a marine terminal near Kitimat, BC. One of the pipelines will carry crude oil west to Kitimat and the other line will carry condensate east to Bruderheim. This presents a very significant threat to coastal marine and terrestrial species and ecosystems, as well as to the food supply and livelihoods of First Nations and coastal communities.

It was fascinating to recently read in the Financial Post how Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel is advocating for what amounts to a national corporate welfare initiative as he flogs his company’s “Northern Gateway Pipeline” project, tossing out empty platitudes like “We’re doing it…for Canada.”

Daniel’s suggestion that Canadians will need to massively subsidize the transport of tar-sands crude through a series of near-confiscatory tax mechanisms in order to make it viable is transparently ironic. However, his assertion that tar-sands development and the Enbridge pipeline, as well as the attendant oil tanker traffic that will put BC’s coastal environment atgreat risk, is at heart an egalitarian crusade to help poor energy-starved third-world countries is cynical beyond belief.

The FP’s Terence Corcoran was spot on when he wrote that what Enbridge “appears to be looking for is not so much a National Energy Strategy as a national regulatory system to codify massive transfers of wealth from one energy source to another, from consumers to the oil sands…” But more than that, like their industry brethren Exxon and BP, Enbridge wants to socialize the cost of the inevitable oil tanker accident on BC’s coast while privatizing the profit.

In another related news item in the Globe and Mail, Daniel was quoted as follows: “But can we promise there will never be an accident? No. Nobody can.” Glib statements regarding the risk of a catastrophic oil spill on the BC coast if his company’s pipeline is approved and constructed are likely cold comfort to most British Columbians, the majority of whom would prefer an oil-free coast according to polling on the issue.

Enbridge has made much of the fact that double-hull tankers would be used to transport tar-sands crude from the north coast terminal in Kitimat. But double hulls have their own set of problems. In an article for the PrinceRupert Daily News, Jennifer Rice delineated several of those issues,including this one: “When double-hulled tankers are traveling at low speeds and a collision occurs, only the first hull is punctured preventing the oil from spilling out. At higher speeds the extra hull has done little to prevent oil spills. In reality, the speed at which both hulls can be pierced is surprisingly low – as little as three knots depending on the strike angle.”

Blind faith in “modern technology” is often misplaced; only eighteen days before the Gulf Coast disaster, in justifying his position on offshore drilling, President Barack Obama asserted that “oil rigs today don’t generally cause spills as they are technologically very advanced.”

Attaching a dollar value to the damage that spilled oil does to marine and terrestrial ecosystems is an impossible task. As the Wall Street Journal is reporting, the blame game in the Gulf of Mexico has begun as BP is claiming “this was not our accident.” Who will pay? If history is any indication, it likely won’t be the corporate entities responsible for the disaster. 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. Further, 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?

Chris Genovali is the executive director of the BC-based Raincoast Conservation Foundation.


You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.