In Big Energy’s massive rush to export oil and coal from inland United States and Canadian mines and wells to the hungry power users of Asia, there’s a leader. First-past-the-post honors go to Northern Gateway.
The Canadian government has approved the plan to send Alberta tar sands oil to northern British Columbia for export.
It took Enbridge, a Calgary-based company, 12 years to get approval from the Canadian government, and approval comes with 209 conditions and promises of lawsuits, political retribution and perhaps civil disobedience on the part of opponents.
So, even the approval may provide a cautionary tale for other export contenders on both sides of the international border: It will take a long process to get that first permit and it may come with a lot of hard-to-manage baggage.
The Conservative cabinet of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave its conditional approval Tuesday to piping some 525,000 barrels a day of Alberta tar-sands oil to the tiny town of Kitimat. It lies at the head of narrow Douglas Channel, which leads to the open sea. First Nations leaders have protested the shipping route — as well as the pipeline route inland — as an intrusion on sensitive waters important to their culture and economy.
It is a familiar issue on this side of the border. Lummi Nation elders have adamantly opposed a coal-export terminal in Whatcom County north of Bellingham, on much the same grounds. In both countries, federal agencies must negotiate with native entities.
A big difference, however, is that the First Nations in northern British Columbia never signed treaties or agreements with their federal governments — as American Indians did, often under protest, in the 19th Century. This potentially gives the Canadian nations an even larger standing in court, and could be critical for Northern Gateway.
First Nation opposition, along with the many conditions in the approval, brought Vancouver’s veteran political columnist Vaughn Palmer to declare that the project will never be built. More upbeat, from Enbridge’s perspective, was the Financial Post, quoting advocates hoping for a 2018 start time on the massive project.
Northern Gateway is actually twin pipelines, a $7.9 billion project carrying 525,000 barrels of oil a day to the coast and 193,000 barrels a day eastward of condensate to dilute the heavy tar-sands oil for that journey. The lines would be buried beneath some of the wildest, most pristine country in Canada.
About 220 oil tankers per year would be involved; double that if you include the return trips. Many of those who live in the area say the weather conditions and currents there can create extreme challenges.
The potential impacts on the Salish Sea and Puget Sound will depend on the economics of the world energy market when and if Northern Gateway ultimately wins all the needed approvals. Northern Gateway exports are currently projected for Asian ports; Kitimat ships would use the narrow Unimak passage through the Aleutians, the shortest route to Asia. It is also used by West Coast cargo ships and will be used by coal ships if terminals are approved.
But market demands could push Canadian tar-sands oil into Puget Sound or California refineries. That would mean more tanker traffic in the already crowded waters to the south, with their own challenging conditions.
The economic and ecological dangers of pushing more huge ships through Unimak Passage, an area of turbulent seas and little capacity to deal with oil spills, has been one of the overlooked issues of the entire coal-and-oil export controversy. The Aleutians are critical to the Pacific Northwest’s commercial fishery as well as marine life in other forms.
Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation commissioned a study on risks in the Aleutians and the lack of rescue tugs in the area. Although based on 2006 data, now vastly understated, it was a sobering warning for an area with little regulation on shipping and less enforcement. (Easy access to the report is on Geologist Dan McShane’s blog, found here.) British Columbia is already on notice that, if a shipping catastrophe occurs, more than half the oil spilled in coastal waters would remain even after cleanup was completed. Tar-sands crude is particularly nasty because it is very heavy and difficult to clean up if it spills.
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