Degrees of consequence

By Aaren Madden, June 2012

BC and Canada are at a dangerous crossroads with the Enbridge pipeline plan, says Victoria MP Denise Savoie.

As an avid kayaker, NDP MP for Victoria Denise Savoie has glided over many of the scenic waters of the West Coast. But never before or since has she encountered the scene awaiting her in Prince William Sound, Alaska: “You’re paddling along the coast and it looks pristine from the water, but as you take your kayak to the beach, you begin to see rock faces that are still completely covered in gummed-up substance,” she says of her experience there in 1999.

A full decade earlier, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit a reef and spilled up to 750,000 barrels of crude oil into the sea. Despite cleanup efforts by over 11,000 local residents and some company workers, less than ten percent of the spill was recovered. The ecosystem, including human settlements in the area, suffered immeasurable and ongoing consequences. Hundreds of thousands of creatures perished, from essential microorganisms to seabirds to orcas, the latter survivors being left infertile. Local livelihoods were destroyed; the spill was linked to suicides.

A slightly earlier tragedy first turned Savoie’s attention towards the intricacies and impacts of politics. Back in 1986, when the nuclear meltdown happened at Chernobyl, USSR, Savoie was earning a Master’s in Education in Grenoble, France. The large nuclear power industry in France prompted a news blackout on the day of the accident. In 2006, just before she was elected the first female MP for Victoria, Savoie told the Victoria News, “It shocked me…it made me ask how you hold your government accountable. In terms of the accident itself, it drove home how governments make major decisions on our behalf, and how we [must] ensure we have a voice in them.”

Savoie, 69, and this city’s first female MP, is now serving her third term in Ottawa and is Deputy Speaker of the House and Chair of Committees of the Whole. She feels even more strongly about holding government accountable today, as we face a crucial crossroads in BC and in Canada. Public hearings for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker project have been ongoing since January and will continue to mid-July. If allowed, the project will see bitumen from the Alberta oil sands transported to Kitimat by pipeline and then on to China by oil tanker through the infamously treacherous waters of Hecate Strait near Haida Gwaii (Savoie has braved those in her kayak as well). Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan wants to twin a pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby. Consequently, even closer to our home, traffic from oil tankers would increase from 5-10 per month to 25-30. 

“Let’s be clear,” Savoie says. “All these proposed pipelines are to service the energy needs of Asia and of the US, not the interests of Canadians. It is foolhardy to be exporting raw bitumen before having developed a Canadian energy strategy.” Besides, basing an entire economic strategy on oil puts other industries—and the entire population—in peril. “There seems to be complete denial of that. Our economy, the health of our country, the well-being of Canadians, depend upon a healthy environment,” says Savoie. 

That’s why, to her thinking, there is no acceptable degree of risk associated with these proposals. “Risk is defined as probability times consequences,” she reasons. In the case of Northern Gateway, Enbridge promises the probability of accidents is low. Double-hulled tankers and all that. To that, Savoie responds, “We all know accidents happen. If one did, “the consequences would be huge. It would decimate our fishing industry, our tourism industry. Not to mention all of the animals that are part of these ecosystems. And the people who live there. Everything.” Not to mention the 1176 km of pipeline, built by a company with a dodgy track record regarding leaks and spills, through wilderness prone to avalanches, extreme weather and earthquakes. 

Concern around both Enbridge and Kinder Morgan’s plans is widespread—from First Nations schoolchildren to municipal councils to church groups all over BC. Lower mainland mayors, environmental organizations and First Nations groups have spoken out against Kinder Morgan’s pipeline doubling.

In response, Prime Minister Harper, Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver have accused environmental groups of “laundering foreign funds” and described intimidation by “radicals.” Environmental approval processes are now being overhauled, and the Ministry of the Environment was gutted in the last federal “Trojan Horse” budget [see Briony Penn’s article in this edition]. It’s looking pretty suspicious to Savoie. While she does say the environmental review process warrants review for improved efficiencies (she suggests an independent consultant), she feels the Harper government’s approach is blatantly one-sided: It’s looking “like more of an approval process” for big oil, she observes. It all points to a government agenda based on “getting that bitumen out of the ground as fast as we can and off to foreign markets without any wise policy, any sense that that oil will be necessary to convert our own economy to a clean one.” 

So what can she do, given the majority government situation? Savoie admits, “I have no illusions of what I can do as one single politician.” She recalls, however, that even very slight course changes can have huge impacts. It was another northern tragedy that inspires Savoie to continue challenging the Harper government with this in mind. In March 2006, the MV Queen of the North, a BC ferry, ran aground and sank in Wright Sound, killing two people. “I remember reading a navy captain say that if that ship had been on a different course by one degree, it wouldn’t have hit the island. So I have always thought that if I can even make a one-degree change, I will have succeeded in my goals.” 

Her goals are simple to measure. “My interest in the issues started with making our community better—I don’t know if that sounds corny, but it really was,” she laughs. Before entering the federal fray, as a two-term Victoria city councillor, she was instrumental in the creation of the Galloping Goose Trail. It required bringing all levels and various departments of government together to create bridges over federal waterways, access to provincial properties, and remediate municipal sites in decay. “I remember joking at a meeting several years ago, saying, ‘I am going to lock the doors until we find a solution.’” Not so much later, communities within the region were literally linked and stronger socially, environmentally and economically for it. It shows the best work that all levels of government are capable of, what Savoie says their ultimate goal should be. 

She continues to strive for that locally on a number of fronts. Recently, she helped secure funding for repairs to the E & N rail line, a positive step for rail and alternative transportation proponents in the region. However, she argues, “No one believes that the E & N will solve all of our transportation issues; it would not be able to deal with all demand to and from the western communities in the coming years.” Forward thinking means advocating for LRT, she says. And “although there is some sticker shock” at the possible $1 billion price tag, it would be phased over time to allow a thoughtful solution to transportation and environmental challenges. 

She sees sewage treatment as another opportunity. “Resource recovery from waste makes sense; and we cannot continue to pollute the marine environment with our personal care and pharmaceutical products,” she says, expressing dismay that planning seems to have drifted into the horse latitudes. She speculates that Provincial Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Ida Chong may have started a stand-off when she said the province would not commit to funding until the feds did, even though tradition dictates the province is usually first to put these things in writing. “Last time I spoke to the Federal Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure [Denis Lebel], I understood there were [federal] funds booked,” she says. “I don’t know if provincial comments compromised that decision.” Savoie plans to sort it out by attending an upcoming CRD planning session in Victoria and speaking with the federal minister again to get an update. 

Back in Ottawa, Savoie will continue to link the greater community of British Columbians to federal policy by raising opposition to the pipeline projects. She says, “My ability as a member of the Official Opposition is to raise this issue in any way I can, to use any lever at my disposal, to ensure my constituents’ voices are heard.” It comes back to consequences: “The kind of society, the kind of country we want our kids to have depends on the decisions we make today,” says the mother of three and grandmother of six.

That thought was reaffirmed for Savoie when she recently spoke to a group of Victoria High School students. In their “engaging, inspiring” conversation, she told them frankly, “there is no magic bullet to changing the government’s mind.” Savoie knows the way to do that is by small but significant degrees. 

Aaren Madden wonders to what degree we could alter the current course. To that end, she offers the following email addresses: peter.kent@parl.gc.ca; joe.oliver@parl.gc.ca.