The $273 billion question: Enbridge and the Northern Gateway controversy

The Harper government wants to supercharge the
 Canadian economy by allowing over 200 tankers a year through the waters off British Columbia. Detractors of the so-called Northern Gateway insist a single oil spill is all it would take to destroy one of the world’s most diverse natural environments. Is the payoff worth the risk...

Reader’s Digest

By Arno Kopecky

“Enbridge keeps promising us jobs,” says Jessie Housty, a tribal councillor in Bella Bella, a cluster of several hundred homes at the north end of Campbell Island and hometown of the Heiltsuk Nation, whose territory marks the southern fringe of the tanker route. Fishing is historically a primary industry in Bella Bella; the spring herring and fall salmon runs remain a crucial source of food and money in a town where winter unemployment approaches 80 per cent. Enbridge has courted First Nations in the region with a 10 per cent stake in the pipeline and new jobs such as tugboat operator, but Housty thinks no offer can offset the risks. “If the Northern Gateway goes through,” she replies, “the only jobs we’ll get are cleaning oil off our beaches.”

At 26, Housty, the youngest tribal councillor in recent Heiltsuk history, has single-handedly spearheaded Bella Bella’s battle against Enbridge’s proposal. It was Housty who played a role in signing the Heiltsuk Nation up for the public hearings in 2010, before anyone in Bella Bella had heard the words “Northern Gateway.” It was Housty who entered local  classrooms to explain what happens when oil tankers founder, inspiring students to undertake a three-day hunger strike in protest. It was Housty who organized the town’s first anti-Enbridge rallies, and kept organizing them until hundreds were showing up. “Used to be you couldn’t get more than five or 10 people at a community meeting,” she says. “Now we’re filling rooms.”

Brian Falconer, a captain with 35 years of experience sailing through the Northern Gateway route, shares Housty’s skepticism. As head of the Marine Operations Program for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation,  he has worked closely with Housty and the Heiltsuk Tribal Council over the decades. Oil tankers, he points out, have been banned from these waters for nearly 30 years, ever since the area’s unfavourable conditions finally convinced U.S. and Canadian authorities to establish a voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone to steer oil carriers around the west side of Haida Gwaii. This zone was designed to ensure sufficient leeway for a drifting, damaged tanker to be rescued by tugs before running aground. “That’s one of the reasons we haven’t had an oil spill here of any scale,” says Falconer.

Enbridge is quick to point out that the agreement is aimed solely at tankers on their way to and from the oil terminal in Valdez—which, at the time the zone was erected, was responsible for all the tanker traffic in the region. Since there had never been an oil terminal at Kitimat, no rules were ever put in place to bar tankers from going there.

True, says Falconer, but in the next 30 years, at least 6,600 oil tankers—some twice as big as any that have come before—are expected to cross between Kitimat and the outer edge of Hecate Strait. The problem? This route provides only one emergency anchorage big enough to harbour an oil tanker in the certain event of a surprise storm…

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