If you think the angry orca leaping out of the ocean on the Vancouver Canucks’ hockey jerseys is just an eye-catching logo, think again. The logo could as easily represent the way many British Columbians feel about proposed pipelines designed to ship heavy oil from Alberta to west coast tidewaters and then, via ocean-going oil tankers, to Asian markets.
Concerns centre around a recent National Energy Board (NEB) recommendation that a $6.8-billion expansion of the 1,150-kilometre Trans Mountain oil pipeline (owned by Kinder-Morgan Canada Inc.) from Edmonton to the Burrard Inlet be allowed to proceed because, in the NEB’s opinion, the expansion is in the nation’s best interests.
While completion of the project would greatly expand Alberta’s access to global markets, increasing the pipeline’s capacity from 300,000 to 800,000 barrels per day also means a sevenfold increase in oil tanker traffic through Vancouver Harbour, the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait, from about 60 to almost 400 ships annually.
En route, the oil tankers must negotiate through one of the world’s largest and busiest harbours, past Stanley Park and ever-popular public beaches, then bypass the scenic and pristine Gulf Islands and the U.S.’s San Juan Islands through Boundary Channel, and, finally, swing past the southern tip of Vancouver Island, the City of Victoria and the U.S.’s Olympic Peninsula.
Throughout this busy shipping route, strong and erratic tidal currents often change quickly, thus making a large oil spill very difficult to contain. The region also is home to three pods of resident endangered orcas – a.k.a. killer whales – as well as many other forms of rich marine life, including major salmon migrations in the Fraser River. The area also contains many small islands and sections of larger islands that are part of Gulf Islands National Park.
The oil tanker safety record in this region has been excellent since the original Trans Mountain pipeline opened in 1953, but a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic can only increase the risk. One major spill would do irreparable damage in these waters, which are prone to high winds and dense fog.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is expected to make its key decision on the project by yearend. Does Trudeau side with Canada’s “national interest” or does he bow to the anti-pipeline/pro environment wishes of the majority of British Columbians, among whom his Liberals made substantial gains in the last election?
B.C. Premier Christy Clark is up for re-election next May, and she’s laid down five key conditions before British Columbia will approve any pipeline. A big one stipulates that B.C. must receive a “fair share” of fiscal and economic benefits from Alberta: thus far, none has been offered.
One possibility sees Alberta buying clean B.C. hydroelectric power from Site C, now under construction in northeastern B.C., to replace some of Alberta’s coal-fired generation. Still, Trans Mountain’s pipeline expansion remains a very tough sell in B.C., where orcas may trump oil.
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