We should care
The Northern Gateway Pipeline is more than a pipedream. Enbridge has plans to build a 1,700-kilometre pipeline from northern Alberta to the BC coast.
Last spring and summer, stark images of gushing oil and spreading oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico showed us the abject helplessness of a multinational oil company in the face of an environmental disaster it had caused.
Those images from British Petroleum’s Deep Water Horizon oil spill are now fuelling the biggest environmental battle ever to take place in Canada.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway Project
A two-year process has just begun to review a $5.5 billion pipeline and supertanker project called the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. Enbridge Inc. and its partners propose to export oil from the Alberta oil sands via a 1,700-kilometre pipeline across northern Alberta and British Columbia, onto supertankers at the BC coast, and from there to refineries in China.
A second, twin pipeline would receive condensate, a petroleum product used to thin the crude oil, from supertankers travelling from Asia to the proposed tanker station at Kitimat, BC, to be imported by pipeline to northern Alberta.
Fears are being raised—of oil spills in the Pacific Ocean; in the inland and coastal waters, salmon-bearing rivers, and freshwater streams of BC; on mountains; in rainforests; and in First Nations territories and other communities.
A seemingly iconic battle of Big Oil versus Environmentalists, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project actually involves every one of us.
The case for Enbridge
Alan Roth, an Enbridge spokesperson, says that thousands of jobs would be created in the construction phase of the Gateway project, with 165 permanent jobs at the supertanker station at Kitimat. “During operations, roughly 550 long-term direct and indirect jobs would be created,” he says, “generating over $300 million in labour income.”
In its application to the Joint Review Panel (JRP), which reports to the National Energy Board, Enbridge promises these benefits will result in “large, long-term government revenue streams.”
To assess the risk of a major oil spill at sea from supertankers, Enbridge hired an independent company, Det Norske Veritas.
“Their assessment of the marine safety program Enbridge has developed was a major spill once in 1,500 years near the tanker terminal at Kitimat,” says Roth, “and in open water considerably less: once in 15,000 years.” He acknowledges, however, that Enbridge would not be financially liable for any oil spill at sea.
As for a potential spill from the 525,000 gallons of crude oil a day that would be transported via the export pipeline over land, and the 193,000 barrels of condensate a day in the import pipeline, Enbridge promises to “meet or exceed government regulations and standards, ensure safe and reliable pipeline networks, and provide compensation for adverse effects.”
Can we believe them?
The case against Enbridge
Although Roth emphasizes the state-of-the-art equipment and expert personnel that would be involved in supertanker operations, human error plays a major role in oil spills at sea, second only to equipment failure in the years 2002 to 2009, according to the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force.
A five-year study of the BC coast by a dozen scientists for Raincoast Conservation Foundation concluded that human error would make an Enbridge-related oil spill inevitable. It would devastate sea life such as otters and killer whales and terrestrial animals such as bears and wolves for generations.
Josh Paterson, staff counsel at West Coast Environmental Law, argues that the proposed route for the supertankers off the BC coast is fraught with dangers. “The Hecate Strait has been cited by the federal government as the fourth most dangerous in the world for navigation,” he says.
This is reportedly because of its shallow water, strong tides, and rapidly changeable weather. He points out that the supertankers are massive, over three football fields in length, and the route into Kitimat has two 90-degree turns.
As for the argument for jobs and tax revenue, “It just doesn’t make sense,” according to Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine BC First Nations that has declared a ban on supertanker traffic.
“We have a sustainable economy here,” Sterritt claims. “We have 26,000 jobs that rely absolutely directly on the sockeye salmon, halibut, black cod, cockles, and crab that live here. That’s $1.4 billion annual revenue from the fish industry alone, with more jobs
Paterson points out that Enbridge’s own corporate record for oil spills from pipeline ruptures shows an average of 60 to 70 per year. This includes the largest land spill in US history.
Enbridge in action
Last summer a six-foot tear in an Enbridge pipeline in Michigan caused 1 million gallons of oil to spill across 30 miles, through four towns, and into creeks and the Kalamazoo River, coming within 80 miles of Lake Michigan before it was stopped.
The spill killed wildlife; fouled habitat, waterways, personal and commercial property; and made some residents ill from benzene vapours, a carcinogenic solvent contained naturally in crude oil.
When a nervous-looking Patrick Daniel, president and CEO of Enbridge, faced a US House Committee investigating the spill in September, he personally apologized. He then drew attention to the 2,200 jobs his company provides to Americans, the 12 percent of US daily crude oil needs it meets, and his company’s excellent record for inspection and safety.
When committee members questioned Daniel, however, a different picture emerged.
Representative Mark Schauer revealed that government inspectors had warned Enbridge of 349 defects, including corrosion, in the pipeline for a number of years prior to the accident; that Enbridge had addressed only a small fraction of those defects; and that the company had asked for years of extensions on the defect repairs.
The committee also noted that Enbridge had claimed their control centre could respond “almost instantaneously” to any leak in a pipeline in Michigan. But evidence showed that it was residents in the affected areas who had called 911 because of the strong smell of gas the day before the company detected the massive leak.
An angry Schauer also revealed that Enbridge had asked residents to sign Full and Final Release from Liability forms for an immediate payment of $210 per adult and $105 per child, obligating those signing never to make additional claims against the company. Daniel explained that his company only wanted to provide prompt compensation.
Dirty oil—on our hands?
In a way it doesn’t matter who we believe, Enbridge or its critics. We are all fuelling the demand for oil that keeps oil companies in business.
When we drive cars, heat homes, or use plastics made from fossil fuels, emissions of greenhouse gases warm the planet, melt polar ice, destroy habitat, and dry out agricultural lands in countries that can least afford it.
This is the bigger picture of the Northern Gateway proposal, and Canada is the world’s largest contributor to the global demand for oil, second only to Australia in our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The fastest-growing source of Canada’s GHGs? The mining and steaming out of bitumen reserves from the Alberta oil sands where Enbridge gets its crude.
According to Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands, Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (Greystone, 2010), oil from bitumen has earned the monikers “tar sands” for the oil sands and “dirty oil” for the oil’s tarlike viscosity and environmental footprint.
Nikiforuk says for every barrel of bitumen, two tons of sand and earth must be stripped and washed away, requiring three times as much natural gas as a barrel of conventional oil and daily producing the same amount of GHGs as heating 6 million homes.
If Northern Gateway goes ahead, its GHG-production will be equivalent to putting another 1.6 million cars on the road every year, according to the Pembina Institute.
What’s the alternative?
The Canadian government, named “Fossil of the Year” in 2009 for the third year in a row at an international summit on climate change, invests minimally in green energy such as wind and solar power.
The largest investment of its Clean Energy Fund, $650 million in 2009, has been in an unproved process called carbon capture and storage (CCS) that might one day bury the carbon and GHGs produced by the oil sands. This is the Alberta government’s approach; Enbridge also publicizes its CCS investment.
According to one of many critics of this approach, Nikiforuk, writing in Canadian Business, says CCS will pump “billions of taxpayers’ money into the ground” and require “obscene amounts of energy.” Meanwhile, rapid climate change continues.
The governments’ approach shouldn’t surprise us: according to a 2005 Canadian Energy Research Institute study, the federal government will reap a conservatively estimated $51 billion through corporate taxes from the oil sands from 2000 to 2020.
The government of Alberta will get $44 billion from leases and royalties for the same period, supplying one-third of its annual revenue.
If governments fail to act responsibly, it’s up to citizens to bring greater pressure to bear. See the sidebar for what you can do now, because Nature can’t wait.
What you can do