Jun 2, 2011

Oil and our coast – surely southern B.C. as important as The Great Bear


Like Mitch Anderson, in a must-read feature article in The Tyee, I am perplexed at the comparatively little attention that environmental organizations pay to the growing prospect of massive increases in oil shipments out of the Port of Vancouver.

For the last few years, a coalition of environmental  organizations, First Nations and others have stepped up efforts to publicize their opposition to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which if built would carry oil processed from Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat for subsequent shipment to China and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim .

But comparatively little has been said about the actual and steadily increasing oil shipments out of the Port of Vancouver, which could further increase sixfold should Kinder Morgan’s plans for a dramatic expansion in tanker traffic get the green light from the National Energy Board among others.

You’d like to think, as Anderson notes, that the prospect of such a surge in oil shipments combined with other related issues such as the dredging of parts of the Burrard Inlet seabed to make way for tankers that could carry four times more oil than was on-board the ill-fated Exxon Valdez, would have environmental leaders tripping all over each other in a rush to get standing before the NEB, which will chair hearings into Kinder Morgan’s proposals.

But nary a one has applied to the NEB for intervenor status. Nor, as Anderson notes, has our provincial government. In fact, our government actually made a point of sending a letter to the NEB saying that it would not be a player in the proceedings.

I wonder why? Is it possible that the province wishes to avoid being seen as supporting such an obviously contentious proposal? Or is it that it wishes to avoid having the spotlight potentially shone on some of the more obviously embarrassing deficiencies in its alleged “environmental protection” plans?

Before considering the adequacy or lack thereof of B.C.’s capacity to respond to oil spills and, more importantly, to work proactively to reduce the prospects of such, consider this:

B.C.’s coastline, with its numerous inlets and islands, is 27,000 kilometres long, more than half the Earth’s equatorial circumference. Over this sprawling area, as well as the entire interior of the province, the provincial government deployed the equivalent of just over 13 full-time staff in 2010 to respond to oil and “dangerous goods” spills. In 2008-2009, we had nearly 4,000 such reported spills in the province, but likely many more that went unreported and undetected given the lack of environmental enforcement and protection staff.

Just across the border, Washington’s spill prevention and preparedness program had 77.7 full-time-equivalent staff in 2010 and its departmental budget allocation for the year was  $29.1 million, compared to B.C.’s paltry allocation of $2.5 million. With a hiring freeze in B.C.’s emaciated environmental departments and plans to reduce already gutted staff further through attrition, our government is flirting with an environmental disaster for which it may one sorry day have to claim some responsibility.

An oil spill in the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca would do incredible damage to the environment in the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island, just as an oil spill on the mid coast from a proposed export facility there would wreak ecological havoc in that place that environmentalists have done so much to cement in people’s minds as our very own ecotopia – the Great Bear Rainforest.

But the damage to the provincial economy caused by a massive oil release in B.C.’s southern waters would be an order of magnitude greater than on the mid coast, for the simple reason that the southern corner of the province is where most British Columbians live, work and play and where countless business are located, many of them tied to the marine economy.

For that reason, we must insist that our elected leaders are held accountable for ensuring that the highest level of environmental safeguards are in place before any substantial increases in oil shipments out of the Port of Vancouver occur, as well as ensuring the safety and integrity of the inland pipeline route that soon may bring a whole bunch more of Alberta’s tar sands oil our way – an issue that the BC Tapwater Alliance correctly foresaw five years ago might soon become an environmental issue of note.

How right they were.




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