Keep oil off of BC’s Coast

There is nothing but bleak news in the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico currently destroying livelihoods and the environment in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and possibly beyond.  There are reports circulating that that spill could quickly become much worse – and we must hope that these scenarios do not materialize and that the well is quickly capped.  Our thoughts are with ecosystems, as well as with the communities and livelihoods, that are being devastated. 

OilspillNASAGoddardCC.jpgThe catastrophe in the Gulf vividly depicts the dangers of the oil economy, and in particular the dangers of exploring for, extracting and transporting crude oil on and around water.  One point of light that may emerge from the blackened water and shoreline would be for people in the United States and in Canada to be spurred by this tragedy to take a sober second look at the dangers of the oil economy. And in the US there are encouraging signs – with California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, reversing his previous support for offshore oil drilling

Here in BC our governments have been pushing ahead with proposals that could result in devastating oil spills on our fragile coast.  And so far there are few signs that our governments are heading the lessons from the Gulf of Mexico spill. 

  • BC has been pressing the federal government to lift a ban on offshore oil and gas development that has been in place since 1972.  Faced with the news of the Gulf spill, Minister of Energy and Mines, Blair Lekstrom, reaffirmed that position
  • Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded to the crisis by soothingly assuring Canadians that our country’s laws somehow make spills from off-shore drilling impossible.
  • Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines continues to press ahead with proposals to pipe oil from Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat on the Pacific North Coast, and there load it onto tankers to navigate down narrow Douglas Channel and across the Inside Passage into the dangerous waters of Hecate Strait, despite a longstanding policy moratorium on tanker traffic on coast and a ban enacted this March by Coastal First Nations.  BC’s Minister of Environment, while acknowledging that the Gulf Spill raises concerns, is suggesting that Enbridge’s pipeline be left to continue through the environmental assessment process. 

Both levels of government seem to be taking the position that somehow we have, or can, put in place rules and systems that will guarantee the safety of BC’s coast from an oil spill.  This is simply false. 

Enbridge’s CEO, Pat Daniel, was more honest when he stated: “Can we promise there will never be an accident? No. Nobody can.

Ontario Environmental Lawyer, Diane Saxe, has pointed to the problem in her post “Spill, Baby, Spill”.  She points out that Australia is struggling with the after effects of an oil spill that occurred despite strong environmental laws, while there is no evidence that stronger environmental laws would have prevented the BP Gulf of Mexico spill. 

[I]t’s hard to believe that any more law would make [BP] more careful. They really, really, really wanted to get a well for all that money, not an oil slick. A different law would not have changed that, except a ban on offshore drilling.

While it’s nice, as lawyers, to pretend that a strong environmental law can anticipate and deal with all eventualities, technological or legal solutions cannot guarantee that there will not be oil spills on BC’s coast.  The only thing that will do that is a ban on having offshore oil rigs or massive oil tankers there in the first place.  There are some environments that are so important, and some industrial activities that carry such large risks, that the two should not be allowed to mix. 

Coastal First Nations in BC recognized this when they enacted, through their own traditional legal systems, a ban on tanker traffic on the coast.  It’s time for Canada’s Parliament to learn the lessons of the Gulf of Mexico – and to affirm the ban on offshore drilling and to join First Nations in by affirming and legislating the ban on tankers on BC’s coast. 

There’s been a policy moratorium – a government decision and promise not to allow tankers – in place for many years.  But we’ve seen that it only works if governments honour that promise.  Parliament needs to pass a law that puts a legally binding ban in place.

Such a ban would:

  • Be enforceable – there is simply no room for non-compliance as the potential risks are too great.
  • Provide clear direction to public service and statutory decision-makers making decisions on a range of matters related to the coast.
  • Provide direction to industry and investors so that they don’t spend time and money developing proposals that pose an unacceptable risk to BC’s coast. 

Please join us, and the Coastal First Nations, in calling on all of the federal political parties to enact a ban on tanker traffic on Canada’s Pacific North Coast and to affirm the existing ban on offshore oil and gas development. 

West Coast has been actively calling for a legislated ban on tankers in the wake of the Louisiana oil spill disaster, and speaking out about the risks posed by the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and the oil tankers it will bring.

Staff Lawyer Josh Paterson interviewed on Global TV News, April 30, 2010

Staff Lawyer Josh Paterson interviewed for Le Téléjournal, Radio-Canada TV, May 3, 2010 (in French)

West Coast quoted in Vancouver Sun article, “Enbridge oil pipeline faces uphill battle”, May 4, 2010

Note: Satellite photo courtesy of Goddard Space Flight Center.