Northern Gateway Pipeline

Today, I joined a long list of speakers in publicly and officially speaking out against Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project. It was a bit of a nervewracking thing to do, but important, despite the news that the Joint Reveiw Panel sounds like a process that will have no bearing on the final decision. I went a bit over time and had to cut out a bit, but here's my speech in full:

It’s not easy to offer the panel new facts and to not reiterate what’s already been said. With a project like this, we are constantly bombarded by media of all kinds. We get snippets of the story and we hear arguments from both sides as retold by journalists and well-meaning but undoubtedly subjective commentators. We’re all exposed to the same media. I understand your goal is to gather new information to help review this proposed pipeline, but I think also that by hearing a united view on several key issues, you will hopefully have a clear idea of why there is opposition to this project, and that it’s based on facts and documented research.

What we hear and what we read and what we then research on our own makes for a partial picture of what’s being proposed, what the risks really are, and what benefits there are as weighed against those risks. Media is fallible. But I, like many of my peers, have done my best to become informed and to learn about both the potential benefits and the potential risks. I believe in balance—between development and conservation—and I try to look at both sides of a story before making a decision. And as I understand it, that’s the intention of this panel, to hear all sides of this story.

Before I try to balance the benefits against the risks in the proposed Northern Gateway project, I’d like to tell you a bit about myself. I’m a working journalist, author, and editor. I’m a professional member of both the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Society for Environmental Journalists. I’ve written for numerous newspapers and magazines and I’ve published an outdoors recreation guidebook to the Prince Rupert region. I often write on the subject of natural landscapes and on BC’s endless search for balance between economic use of natural resources and the environmental implications to our population growth and continued expansion into the as-yet untouched landscapes in the province. I’ve travelled across BC many times, to its far corners, and into its remote landscapes. I’ve lived in the interior—both north and south—on the southern coast, and on the North Coast. Since moving to northern BC, I’ve crossed the Hecate Strait countless times to visit Haida Gwaii for work and to spend time with friends there. I’ve fished commercially on the west coast of Haida Gwaii and I’ve fished recreationally around Prince Rupert. I’ve driven, biked, hiked, skied, snowshoed, climbed, and paddled all over BC. It’s staggeringly large, unimaginably beautiful, and truly one of the most amazing places in the world. There’s no denying that this place is special, unique and important.

I believe that BC—especially the northern half—is home to a huge amount of largely untapped economic potential in the tourism sector. That’s part of what I do—I write about outdoors experiences in northern BC’s natural landscapes because I think other people will want to come up here and experience it for themselves. When they do, everyone in BC benefits. The trickle effect of tourism dollars might take awhile to work its way through our provincial economy, but it does and we all share in the benefits. As tourism economy increases, the need to rely on resource-based economy decreases. Each time we share what is so fantastic about northern BC, we find ourselves in a slightly better position. Do we still need to sell logs to China if we can attract Chinese tourists to check out our old-growth forests? Do we need to dam our rivers and sell electricity to our southern neighbour if we can send Americans on epic guided rafting trips? Do we need to rip mountains apart for the minerals inside if we can send Europeans on backcountry skiing expeditions they’ll never forget? Each time we capitalize on what we already have—great landscapes and great experiences—we move towards a balanced economy. And the best thing is: experiences are limitless, renewable. Resources are not.

I’m also a pragmatic person—I see the point in development, I have friends who are loggers, I live in a house, I drive a car and I therefore use oil. I recognize there are faults in our consumer-driven culture but I make no pretence that I’m not part of it. Put simply, if we drive cars, we need fuel. If we live in 2x4 framed houses, we need the logging industry. There’s no quick and simple answer to these problems.

But this isn’t about putting fuel in our cars or providing the timber for our houses. It’s about trade and the Canadian economy. The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project connects the Albertan tar sands with an Asian market, by crossing British Columbia from its eastern border to its northern coast, where the trade route will then supposedly safely navigate BC’s pristine northern waters out into the Pacific and off across the ocean. Logistically, this project is a nightmare. If it weren’t for the billions of dollars involved, I’d say anyone who has travelled in—or over—BC’s more remote landscapes would laugh it off as a pipe dream. But of course there are serious amounts of money involved, which is why, against all reason, against the protests of thousands of people across the country, and against the wishes of every First Nations government in BC and beyond, the Northern Gateway Pipeline project continues to be “discussed”. And disgust is what many of us feel when we think or talk about this supposed “open discussion” that’s happening so far away, especially given the news of the past few weeks.

Logistics: The pipeline has to travel nearly 1200 kilometres, through terrain that can only be described in words like “rugged” and “remote”, words I normally reserve to hint at the risks I enjoy taking so I can experience a landscape few people get to see, a landscape that is an amazing renewable resource we’ve yet to really tap into. The pipeline has to cross creeks and rivers, all of which are ultimately connected to towns and villages. In the event of a spill or leak, those towns and villages would suddenly and irrevocably be left without drinking water. Without water, human beings last only a couple of days. Okay, you can truck in water, but who’s going to pay for it?

And speaking of money, money has to be the biggest benefit to this proposed pipeline. I mean, every one of us in BC should be getting a pretty hefty kickback for putting our province’s best landscapes on the line. According to the Enbridge website, there are two benefits BC will receive in the event of this pipeline going through: jobs and $1.2 billion dollars in tax money over 30 years. The majority of the jobs are short-term, construction-based. And the tax money: Ignoring where the rest of the money goes for the moment—the excessive profits to be made on this project—let’s do a little math. $1.2 billion dollars over 30 years works out to forty million dollars to the BC government per year. There are approximately four and a half million people living in BC, so supposing we actually saw that money ourselves, it means that we would each, as individuals, be entitled to less than $10 a year. Ten dollars. That’s ten bucks a year compensation for taking some fairly significant risks. The risks include, among many others, losing our drinking water, losing our watershed ecosystems with all their biodiversity—and no one really knows the implications of the death of an entire ecosystem—losing our ability to market BC as pristine wilderness and therefore losing all that untapped tourism potential, losing jobs in the event of a spill that affects things like BC’s commercial fishing industry, losing vital wildlife habitat and disrupting habitat during construction. I, for one, think that that’s a lot to lose.

Supposing the pipeline can safely cross the province and it does somehow avoid spillage and breakage—year after year—as it wends its way across that “rugged” and “remote” terrain, it eventually finds itself in Kitimat. And when this proposed pipeline reaches the coast, tankers much larger, and carrying much higher quantities than the Exxon Valdez, are supposed to smoothly and effortlessly navigate out into open waters. Forget for a moment the actual marine map that shows just how treacherous this really is in terms of navigation and forget, too, what history has shown us in terms of tankers spilling oil, think for a second about the weather.

The North Coast is known for its weather. It’s wet, temperate, and windy. There are loads of wind turbine projects currently in development in the area because it’s so windy. I lived in Prince Rupert for a few years and weathered fierce storms as a matter of daily life. Winds topped 120 km/hr on a regular basis. No one bats an eye when roof shingles are ripped off in the winds or big trees uprooted and tossed like sticks down a hillside. Locals are used to it. It’s just life on the North Coast. After it’s over, you pick up the pieces and put them back together. You fix your house and get on with life.  But no one ever takes out a boat when it’s that windy. And even when it’s less windy, the waters on the North Coast are still fierce, feared and respected. Some of the world’s biggest tides make boating in the area a unique challenge. Offshore storms constantly whip the coastal waves into a frenzy. I’ve sat on the ferry crossing the Hecate Strait in 3-4 metre seas—it’s not fun. And 3-4 metres is very, very small for that part of the world. Those waves get way bigger. Anyone who’s been on a boat in even mildly stormy weather on the North Coast has an immense amount of respect for the ocean’s ability to quickly change your plans.

So how are these supertankers going to safely navigate from Kitimat through a number of tight passages and sharp turns in all this treacherous weather, again and again and again? Will they halt production on a regular basis, sometimes for days or weeks on end, waiting for the weather? Or will they chance it and head out when there’s a slight break to the endless winter storms that batter the coast? With so much money riding on their ability to get out of Kitimat and cross the Pacific, I think it’s obvious those tankers will head out in stormy weather and challenging seas. But a break in the weather doesn’t always last. The weather out there is fickle—it changes every half an hour.

Which brings us to what happens if—when—a spill occurs. Along the pipeline, if a spill happens, our drinking water, our wildlife habitat, and our recreational landscapes are impacted, forever changed. This is rugged terrain with plenty of natural threats—landslides, as you’ve heard, are regular, but unpredictable—so unless Enbridge plans to employ thousands of people to monitor firsthand the pipeline along every inch of its 1200 kms, there will be a large time-lag between when an event happens and when it can be stopped…if it can be stopped. Our province’s best feature—its natural beauty and wild landscapes—will be tainted forever. Canada as a country will suffer, because that’s how the rest of the world sees us: as a wild and beautiful place. Not as a country that sacrifices its natural resources for a quick buck. Certainly not as a landscape stained black with crude oil. And out on BC’s coast, if—when—a spill occurs, the damage will irreparably affect every single person in this province. Why? An oil spill in water is deadly. It kills sea life of all kinds and it doesn’t just dissipate—it spreads, insidiously. The ocean ecosystem is a huge and largely unexplored place. The effects of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska are still felt today, more than 20 years on. If there’s a spill near Kitimat and Hartley Bay, the potential repercussions reach as far south as Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, and as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. Maybe much, much farther, as the oil works its way through that big, complicated system—the food chain—travelling in the stomachs of whales to the ends of the Earth.

How long will it take to clean up the mess? Who will clean up the mess? What will happen to BC’s fishing industry in the meantime? So long salmon. Bye halibut. The cruise ship economy—gone. Tourists will either desert Canada’s west coast or they’ll come to gawp at what idiots these crazy Canadians have been. And everyone who calls that part of Canada home will have to deal with the stark realities of the situation day after day, year after year.

The prospects are grim. In simple business terms, the risks far outweigh the potential benefits. On the one hand we get some tax money and a few jobs. The Canadian economy improves—slightly—and a few companies get rich. And in return for those meagre benefits, we have to risk losing so much.

And in twenty, thirty, forty years when we’re still cleaning up the mess, be it a pipeline spill or a coastal disaster, or, god forbid both, what legacy will we have left behind for our kids? I have two kids—a daughter named Amelia and a son named Finlay. Amelia is six and Finlay is three. They love the outdoors as much as I do. They’ve seen wild landscapes and “developed” landscapes in equal measure. Just the other day, Amelia and I hiked a local trail in the morning and biked our local Perimeter Trail in the afternoon. At one point she actually said to me, “Daddy, I love Mother Nature.” I’m terrified that my kids will grow up with this love for nature, the outdoors, and exploring, but their picture of the place they live in will be tainted, forever painted black—the colour of the oil that Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline wants to take across our province.

So I implore you, as the remaining few who have some official say in the matter, to take our collective pleas to the right places and make sure that this thing doesn’t go through. And in doing so, you’ll let Canada be a truly great country, one that provides for its population in other ways than by risking everything, all for the sake of money.