Why I oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway, part 3

This is the third post detailing the reasons for my opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway, and deconstructing some of the arguments in favour of the proposal. In this entry, I examine the debate around the oil tanker route through Douglas Channel, and the ad hominem attacks aimed at environmental charities by the Harper Conservatives.

Tanker route “flawed and dangerous”: Master Mariner

First Nations are not the only critics concerned about the perilous voyage from Kitimat to the Pacific, which Enbridge expects 220 tanker ships to undertake each year. In a letter originally published in Western Mariner magazine, and republished in the Vancouver Observer, veteran ship’s captain Mal Walsh, of Comox, B.C., asserted a number of serious reservations not only about the proposed route, but the presence of oil tankers in narrow, tortuous Douglas Channel to begin with.

Walsh immediately makes clear that he, an experienced connoisseur of navigation, finds the passage inordinately risky, and its hazard to the local ecology too great, to justify the expected financial gains.

Before the oil even makes its way into each tanker’s berth, Walsh explains that the vessel must first emit its ballast – a reserve of seawater the it carries from one port to the next, and discharges in anticipation of hefty cargo. And this process alone can be harmful to an ecosystem, elaborates Walsh, by introducing foreign and invasive marine viruses, bacteria, jellyfish, crabs, molluscs, and other undesirable newcomers into the local waters. For a marine zone as sensitive as Douglas Channel and surrounding waterways, the resulting damage could be significant, writes Walsh.

Hundreds of oil tankers would need to navigate a series of narrow channels to reach the Kitimat shipping terminal annually, often contending with turbulent weather conditions. Image c/o iansand/Flick

Walsh also expresses concern around the safety of the voyage, the accuracy of the “double-hulled” description of the tankers that would be involved, the possibility of violent weather (Hecate Strait is renowned for its impetuous climate and frequent winter storms), and the lack of sufficient measures to assist tankers in distress.

It’s important to note, however, that Walsh’s views do not represent consensus among master mariners. Another experienced ship’s captain, George A. Adams of West Vancouver, responded to Walsh’s assertions by declaring the Douglas Channel route “safe,” and by dismissing Walsh’s concerns around weather, lack of contingencies for ships in distress, and ballast expulsion.

As a non-mariner and non-expert on these matters, I can’t be certain which of these captains’ assessments is more correct. What I do know, however, is that there still appears to be significant debate among experts regarding the route’s safety. I also know that the presence of tankers in Douglas Channel makes the possibility of an accident 100 per cent more likely than their absence – and that no amount of safety precautions is guaranteed to preclude a diluted bitumen spill.

Some scientists have proposed to resolve the global problem of nuclear waste by launching it into the heavens in a space shuttle: out of sight, out of mind. But the fact is, irrespective of one’s degree of caution, the potentiality that the shuttle will fail, explode or crash can never be fully nullified – and the results of such a calamity would be so devastating as to invalidate the mere attempt.

To the menace of tanker traffic in Douglas Channel, I apply the same standard.

The War on Environmentalism

Our Prime Minister is in a terrible hurry.

He’s sprinting against time, racing to defeat the spectres of liberalism and social democracy that haunt his nightmares, dashing to build the Canada of his dreams, a Canada of low taxes, industry, military might and topheavy prosperity. He’s determined to reinforce his image as a shrewd master of parsimony, bearing all the hallmarks that such a reputation entails: the tidy-on-paper economic indicators that attract foreign investors like moths to a streetlight, a deficit strangled by the noose of austerity. And with an emboldened parliamentary opposition breathing down his neck, he’s acutely aware that time is of the essence, that the uncommon clout he’s attained is liable to disintegrate as rapidly as it materialized. After years spent trudging through the irksome mire of a minority government, he’s shed his hefty boots, he’s donned a slick new pair of running shoes, and he’s redoubled his pace to compensate for past delays, ramming through omnibus crime and budget bills and leaving precious little opportunity for debate.

As for the obstacles that remain? Well, his inclination is apparently to steamroll them – be they perennial foes or erstwhile allies.

The turnaround in Harper’s attitudes toward environmental organizations is certifiably Romneyesque – indeed, in 2005, and in the early months of his leadership in 2006, Harper strove to be seen as a leader of green credentials, operating in the interests of both conservatism and conservationism.

In 2007, the federal Tories brokered a deal with the Tides Foundation that would see the organization contribute $30 million toward protection of the Great Bear Rainforest – an initiative applauded by the Sierra Club of Canada, ForestEthics and Greenpeace who all recognized it as a step in the right direction for Canada. And they weren’t alone.

“We know there is a strong link between a healthy ecosystem, a healthy society and Canada’s economic prosperity,” said John Baird, Canada’s environment minister at the time, in a statement.

My, how quickly the Harper Conservatives (conveniently) forgot what THEY THEMSELVES once stated was in the interest of Canada’s economic prosperity.

Like so many faux-environmentally conscious leaders before him, Harper pulled a 180 once the financial crisis imperiled Canada’s bottom line – and unceremoniously tossed his conservationist partners to the roadside.

And when environmental advocacy organizations like the Sierra Club, the David Suzuki Foundation and Tides Canada began questioning oil sands development, and speaking out in objection to the prime minister’s effusive support of the Northern Gateway, they found themselves in Conservative crosshairs almost immediately, accused of money-laundering and playing proxy to American interests by impeding the export of Canadian bitumen to Asia. They were inculpated for entering inappropriately into the political arena, and assuming a partisan position. They were also branded “radicals” and antagonistic toward Canada’s economic interests, by Harper’s Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver.

And to help validate their hypocrisy, the Conservatives found an ideological partner in freelance writer Vivian Krause.


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