610 spills too many

by Briony Penn, January 2011

First Nations lead the fight against Enbridge’s $5.5 billion Northern Gateway Project.


On December 7, all opposition parties in the House of Commons united to pass a motion requesting an immediate legislative ban on oil tanker traffic in Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound. On December 14, a bill providing that legislation was tabled in the House of Commons.

The parliamentary bill follows hot on the heels of a declaration by 61 First Nations opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project—a $5.5 billion, 1,170-kilometre pipeline designed to carry 114 million litres of crude oil per day to the port of Kitimat from Bruderheim in Alberta, and smaller amounts of condensates back in the other direction (condensates thin the crude enough to make it flow). The pipelines would pass through 50 First Nation territories directly, crossing 800 streams and rivers, including tributaries of the Fraser. Once the oil reaches Kitimat, it would be piped into one of the 225 bulk crude oil tankers anticipated per year to travel down Douglas Channel past some of the most rugged, rocky coastline anywhere in the world and then west through Hecate Strait to Asia.

So the tankers and the pipeline are related—even dependent on each other. If tankers are banned, the pipeline would lose its raison d’etre. And vice versa. And there is good reason to fear both. Over the last decade, other Enbridge pipelines have released 21 million litres of raw hydrocarbons in 610 spills, including the latest leakage of nearly four million litres into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

The historic alliance of 61 First Nations to protect the Fraser River watershed builds on an earlier declaration by coastal First Nations of their opposition to the project, plus a 2006 court challenge to Enbridge’s plans by the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council—more than half the pipeline runs through their territories. 

First Nations are joined in their opposition by the Union of BC Municipalities, which has passed a resolution calling for a legislated ban on oil tankers off the central coast and the transport of crude oil through the proposed Enbridge pipeline. Last September, at the kickoff of the Joint Review Panel process set up to evaluate Enbridge’s plans, overwhelming opposition to the project was voiced by many others. Concerns ranged from the impacts of the project to  the process of the Review Panel itself, citing: The bias of the panel, the limitations of questions allowed, and the lack of detail on cultural and environmental impacts (from storm frequency to landslide impacts). Most recently, a new report of the Pembina Institute says Enbridge’s application is flawed in suggesting a need for more pipeline when there is actually an overcapacity.

So the tally of those opposed to the oil pipeline and tankers now includes all the federal and provincial opposition parties, all the First Nations directly and indirectly affected, unions including the United Fisherman and Allied Workers, local, provincial and national environmental and stewardship groups, and, according to all polls and petitions conducted on the subject, the vast majority of Canadian citizens.

But it isn’t over yet.

Besides passing legislation through the Conservative-dominated Senate, there are two more years of the Joint Review Panel process left if Enbridge doesn’t withdraw its application. And Enbridge shows no signs of doing so.

Enbridge also isn’t without friends in high places. A recently set up website by the “Enbridge Northern Gateway Alliance” defends the project on the basis of economic opportunities and jobs. Described as a “community coalition established to support the regulatory review of the Northern Gateway project,” the alliance’s chair is Colin Kinsley, the ex-mayor of Prince George, who has spent his entire career in the oil and gas industry (and is presently making a bid for the federal Conservative candidacy). There are eight other individuals listed as “alliance leaders” on the website, including the present mayors of Prince George and Mackenzie, and past and present CEOs of the BC Chamber of Commerce, but there is no additional information on the membership or funding of the organization. (Kinsley didn’t return phone calls.)

And then there’s the Joint Review Panel (of the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency) itself, whose three-person panel includes a biologist with an environmental consulting firm tied to the oil patch out of Calgary; a lawyer and senior executive out of the energy sector, also from Calgary; and a geologist from Ontario. None of these people have any experience with the unique cultural and ecological values of British Columbia. 

Still, the united First Nations are a force to be reckoned with. The 2006 legal challenge by Carrier Sekani Tribal Council caused the initial application of Enbridge to be withdrawn. Vice Chief Terry Teegee said that should the Joint Review Panel come down in favour of Enbridge then they would reissue their legal challenge or join in a class action suit with other First Nations. 

Mike Ridsdale of the Office for the Wet’suwet’en—10 percent of the pipeline would run through their territory—echoed their intentions to challenge the project. 

And there’s another legal case unfolding that could provide additional weight. Xeni Gwet’in councillor Roger Williams reports that the landmark 2007 court ruling that granted aboriginal title to Xeni Gwet’in land (not just rights and resources) and was appealed by the province, has now finished the appeal process. If the appeal is denied (a decision is expected this spring), Williams says the Xeni Gwet’in will be in a position to constitutionally challenge Enbridge. The recent rejection of Taseko’s Prosperity Mine at Fish Lake by the federal minister of environment indicates the aboriginal title case is beginning to influence resource outcomes. In relation to this decision, Tsilhqot’in National Government’s Chief Joseph Alphonse stated: “First Nations also want good jobs for our people and a future for our children and we want them to prosper, but we do not want to destroy our environment, values and future generations to achieve this.”

Tackling the investors has also been part of First Nations strategy. Last spring, Carrier Sekani Vice Chief Teegee told shareholders of the Royal Bank of Canada, one of the biggest investors in the tarsands and Enbridge, that his tribal council do not want the pipeline. RBC has subsequently drafted a policy requiring “free, prior and informed consent” by First Nations as a precondition for financing, following Canada’s signing the UN Declaration for Aboriginal Rights. If the draft policy passes, according to Teegee, it further undermines Enbridge financing, already weakened by the pull out of PetroChina after the first Carrier Sekani court challenge. 

Stories about the reception of Enbridge in communities abound: Haida Gwaii First Nation and non-native communities have joined together in feasts where they pour oil over their seafood in symbolic rejection of the project; the Heiltsuk First Nation in Waglisla (Bella Bella) invited Enbridge to a day of traditional dance, song and discussion with the Hemas (traditional chiefs) on the cultural and ecological impacts of an oil spill; a Kitimat City Councillor stepped down from the Enbridge Community Advisory Board, calling the process a “sham.” 

In such ways, First Nations have taken a leadership role in the battle against tankers and pipelines to our northern coast.

We on the southern coast will need to heed their lessons and tactics—ironically, especially if the Enbridge pipeline is denied the go-ahead.

Kinder Morgan, which has been shipping heavy crude oil out of its Westbridge Terminal in Burnaby, is hoping to grab the share of the market that will be created if the Enbridge project fails. Already Kinder Morgan is shipping 20,000 barrels per day out of Vancouver and, according to the petro-magazine Petroleum Economist in November, Kinder Morgan is ramping up on their “undeclared ambitions” to expand the Vancouver shipments. They’ve upgraded their pipelines to increase their capacity to a around 300,000 barrels per day. 

What this means for us in Victoria and nearby communities is a tanker traffic disaster waiting to happen in our own waters. One tanker incident in the Salish Sea could release 700,000 barrels which, according to some oil spill modelling forecasts, would spread within eight days to the entire coastline of the Salish Sea and devastate our marine and shoreline habitats. They anticipate a rise in tanker traffic to the same scales as the northern proposal.

A new organization, www.notanks.org, with Greenpeacer founder Rex Wyler at the helm, has started a campaign and watchdog group on Kinder Morgan’s acceleration of tanker traffic out of Burnaby. (Remember the pipeline leak in 2007 in Burnaby? That was the Kinder Morgan pipeline.) Pamela Anderson lent her star power last month to the issue, walking the shores of her hometown Ladysmith in a video warning the public of the impacts of a southern spill. 

Southern communities need to take some cues from our northern neighbours and start to consolidate a position around a Kinder Morgan expansion that would affect our waters. The leadership on oil issues in the 21st century has come overwhelmingly from the First Nations so that should be the first place to support and look for guidance.

From her home on Salt Spring Island, Briony Penn can see the increased oil tanker traffic moving down Boundary Pass, through the southern Gulf Islands National Park and into Haro Strait, the prime summer feeding habitat of the endangered southern Orca resident whales.