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Local governments on the south coast make a move on oil tankers

October 12, 2011
Photo Credit: Government of BC, used under Creative Commons license

At the end of September, West Coast lawyers hit the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual mega-conference in Vancouver. It’s a week-long, intense festival of policy discussions and meetings, and it really is one-stop shopping for any organization – including public interest lawyers -  who want to push forward their agendas for change.

That’s because the place is packed with municipal mayors and councillors from cities, towns and regional districts all over BC, as well as just about every member of the legislative assembly, provincial minister, and deputy minister and senior provincial official that you could dream of (that’s right – we dream of a place packed with municipal and provincial officials – and yes, I just used a dangling preposition).

That is handy, because part of our work at West Coast is to engage with officials and politicians about where environmental law and policy are going, and where we think they should be going… and doing it all in one spot is easier and less emissions-intensive than travelling back and forth to Victoria. A few days hanging around the UBCM is worth several trips to the capital.

Now we didn’t just go to the UBCM to hang around. Along with our friends at Dogwood Initiative (who really led the charge), we were helping to push forward a resolution that the City of Victoria and the City of Burnaby had sponsored against plans to increase crude oil tanker traffic on the south coast of BC, through Vancouver harbour, the Gulf Islands, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

As you might have heard, Kinder Morgan Canada – the company that owns an existing oil pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby – has plans to dramatically expand the amount of oil it pumps from the tar sands to the Lower Mainland, where it would then be loaded onto oil tankers bound for Asia and the west coast of the United States. Already, practically under all of our noses, the company has been quietly increasing the number of tankers carrying oil out of Burnaby’s Westridge Terminal (though numbers decreased in the past year, the trend is upward in nature). The plan is for a pipeline even bigger than the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway, with way more tankers than are proposed for the north coast. It won’t likely surprise you to learn that we don’t think this is a good idea.

The Victoria/Burnaby resolution stated:

WHEREAS B.C.’s local governments are burdened with significant economic, cultural and environmental risk in the event of a large oil spill into their watershed(s) or the marine environment near their communities & yet, B.C.’s local governments were not  actively consulted regarding Kinder Morgan’s historic or planned expansion of oil tanker traffic.

AND WHEREAS sixty one of BC’s First Nations have signed the ‘Save the Fraser’ declaration prohibiting oil pipeline and tanker traffic expansion through their lands, territories and watersheds, or ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the UBCM request that the National Energy Board, Port Metro Vancouver, and all appropriate Federal Ministers ensure that any application to expand the amount of oil transported by pipeline and tanker undergo:

a)   the highest degree of environmental assessment; and,

b)  meaningful public consultation, including direct engagement with affected municipalities, regional authorities and BC First Nations.

Essentially the local government leaders are saying that there must be no decision by the federal government’s National Energy Board to increase tanker traffic through Port Metro Vancouver without robust consultation with the public, local governments and First Nations, and that any plans for expansion must be subject to the highest level of environmental assessment.

Up to now, Kinder Morgan has proceeded with a series of smaller applications to the National Energy Board, laying the groundwork for their big expansion plans but – so far – not triggering any requirement for a serious process of public consultation. In part because much of their required pipeline infrastructure is already there, they have been moving ahead bit by bit, in contrast to the proposed Enbridge pipeline in the north which is being assessed as a whole project and is subject to a public hearing process (the adequacy of which West Coast has strongly criticized). West Coast thinks that this approach is unacceptable, and we said so in a submission to the National Energy Board this summer on yet another of Kinder Morgan’s smaller preliminary applications (which we drafted on behalf of a range of allied conservation groups).

The Victoria/Burnaby resolution passed by an overwhelming majority, so it’s now clear that BC’s municipal governments think Kinder Morgan’s approach is unacceptable too.

Getting the resolution to pass was a bit of an uphill battle. As it had been submitted late, it was recommended not to be passed by the committee in charge of resolutions. Making matters worse, the committee had confused the Victoria/Burnaby resolution on Kinder Morgan tankers on the south coast with last year’s successful resolution in which municipalities opposed Enbridge oil tankers on the north coast, seemingly taking the position that the matter had been dealt with already. In order to get the resolution off of the reject pile, a three-fifths majority of mayors and councillors was needed.

So we set to work talking to mayors and councillors all week long, telling them about the resolution and why it should be “un-rejected” and voted on. We even had our summer law student Anna Novacek get in on the action, helping to talk to delegates outside of the convention as she didn’t have an access pass. Between Dogwood Initiative, West Coast Environmental Law, and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee which also came out to help us get the job done, we managed to gather enough support for the motion that when the time came to vote, it sailed through. The strong support at the microphone from Philippe Lucas, the councillor from Victoria championing the resolution, undoubtedly made a big difference. Just in case there were push-back from delegates, representatives from Burnaby, Vancouver and the Islands Trust (the Gulf Islands local government) were also ready to go at the mike.

As a result of the resolution, local governments have made a strong statement to the federal government that any plans to expand tanker traffic on the south coast must be subject to a rigorous and comprehensive environmental assessment, rather than cut up into smaller steps and approved on a piecemeal basis. The ball is now in the federal government’s court on this one. The recent decision to appoint a review panel with full public hearings on the Site C Dam is somewhat encouraging – hopefully the federal government and/or the National Energy Board will be persuaded that a single, comprehensive assessment is the only way to ensure that people living on the south coast affected by these plans can properly participate in these decisions.

An additional note that we think is quite important is that the UBCM resolution on southern tankers explicitly recognizes the decision of First Nations from throughout the Fraser River watershed to ban tankers in coastal waters, and oil pipeline infrastructure in their territories, based in their own Indigenous laws. The resolution mentions the Save the Fraser Declaration, signed by sixty-one First Nations communities, as one reason for local governments to demand a more comprehensive process from the federal government. For local governments, en masse, to explicitly reference a statement of Indigenous law as a reason for doing something is quite remarkable and it is encouraging. 

By Josh Paterson, Staff Lawyer