Photo: Ilja Herb
A federal decision on the Northern Gateway is expected in 2014. Hanging over it is the question of an oil spill. Or rather, questions: how likely, how big and how costly to clean up? In 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled a quarter of a million barrels into volatile waters nearly identical to those found throughout the Northern Gateway’s proposed route, contaminating almost 2,000 kilometres of pristine Alaskan shoreline. More than 11,000 people were recruited for cleanup operations that lasted three years. Almost a quarter century later, the herring fishery in Prince William Sound, which received the brunt of the spill, is still closed. Salmon fisheries and shellfisheries remain stunted, and you can still scoop up oil with your hands on beaches more than 700 kilometres from where the tanker ran aground.
Afraid that British Columbia could be next to host such a scenario—the plan potentially endangers some 900 kilometres of Canadian coastline—a broad coalition has assembled to fight the Northern Gateway. Over 130 First Nations have registered their opposition by signing the Save the Fraser Declaration, and environmental groups from Greenpeace to the David Suzuki Foundation have co-ordinated marketing campaigns, online petitions and rallies. Scientists and researchers with decades of experience in marine systems have also spoken up.
One of them is Barb Faggetter, an oceanographer with a 20-year career on the B.C. coast. She was commissioned to analyze the Northern Gateway proposal on behalf of northern British Columbia’s fisheries’ union, and she believes it’s a bad deal. “The unknowns are huge,” she says. “The ecological impact might be light, but negative impact in the event of an oil spill could just as easily be devastating.”
Jay Ritchlin, director general of Western Canada at the David Suzuki Foundation, agrees. Ritchlin and his team ran through simulations of the effects that oil spills of varying sizes and types would have on the coast. Each result—always kept to the most conservative, “best case” scenario—wreaked havoc on the area’s fish, shellfish and whales. “Enbridge’s project,” Ritchlin says, “poses a significant threat to the region’s enormous biodiversity and to the thriving economy and ecotourism that biodiversity sustains.”
Last January, Oliver published an open letter denouncing Northern Gateway critics as “radical groups” determined to stop the project despite the cost “in lost jobs and economic growth.” The Economist, reporting on the controversy a few months before that, had described the opposition as “an outbreak of Nimbyism.” The anti-Enbridge camp maintains, however, that this is no ordinary backyard. Spanning a dozen mountain ranges and hundreds of rivers and streams, British Columbia’s untracked wilderness poses a greater engineering challenge than Enbridge—which operates more than 24,500 kilometres of crude-oil pipeline across North America—has ever faced.
Indeed, the company’s record is not encouraging. On July 25, 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured near Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. When alarms sounded, company technicians blamed it on an air bubble, and boosted flow pressure. By the time the two-metre tear was detected—nearly 17 hours after the incident—20,000 barrels of oil had contaminated a 61-kilometre stretch of the river. With cleanup costs reaching $800 million, it remains the most expensive onshore pipeline spill in U.S. history.
The Northern Gateway pipeline route, however, is only part of the worry. It’s in Kitimat where the most fraught portion of the shipment would start—where the oil sets out to sea. Notwithstanding the Kalamazoo River catastrophe, pipeline spills rarely exceed a few hundred barrels because technicians can turn off the tap the moment they discover a leak. Compromised oil tankers, by contrast, can spew hundreds of thousands of barrels into the ocean. And British Columbia’s geography makes such concerns real. If the project is approved, oil tankers will first have to navigate a series of island-pocked, reef-strewn channels famous for heavy currents that change directions every six hours with the tide. After running this narrow, 105-kilometre gauntlet, the tankers will cross Hecate Strait, described by Environment Canada as “the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world.” This is due to the hurricanes that drop in with little notice, on waters so shallow the ocean bottom is often exposed in the troughs between waves. Few ships could sail away from a bottom strike.
Enbridge has tabled an exhaustive plan to minimize the risk of 270,000-tonne tankers running into trouble in these waters. Among other things, Enbridge’s fail-safe strategy calls for all tankers to be double-hulled; each would be accompanied by two “supertugs”—immensely powerful tugboats that would haul a tanker to safety or push it like a bumper car—throughout their passage in the confined channels of interior waters; each tanker’s load would be held in segregated tanks, meaning that if one were to rupture, only a portion of the total shipment would be compromised; operational weather limits would bar tankers from travelling in excessive sea conditions; pilots and tug crews would undergo simulator training; and a radar system would be installed to link up with the Coast Guard’s central command.
These measures lead to the final calculation that a major tanker spill (250,000 barrels or more—same as the Exxon Valdez) could be expected once every 15,000 years. In the past 10 years, five major vessels have sunk, run aground or experienced collisions along this same route. But somehow, using security measures tested only in computer simulations, 220 oil tankers with individual holding capacities of up to two million barrels are expected to transit through each year, without incident, and reach the open Pacific? Few locals are willing to bet on it.
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