B.C. oil pipeline: A threat to the whole Northwest?

With the assist of a friendly Conservative government in Canada, Big Energy wins a skirmish. How will it affect the larger battle over coal and oil exports?
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The Port of Kitimat

With the assist of a friendly Conservative government in Canada, Big Energy wins a skirmish. How will it affect the larger battle over coal and oil exports?

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.

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Map: ForestEthics

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.

Alberta crude is already piped to the region via the Kinder-Morgan line that terminates in Burnaby, near Vancouver. The company wants to double the capacity of the line. A branch of the line brings oil to all five Washington refineries; that branch is not part of the expansion plan.

Most of the coal-export terminals proposed in Washington and Oregon are for Asian power plants and furnaces, as are operating terminals in British Columbia. Existing and planned crude-oil terminals in British Columbia serve or will serve Asian markets. American crude cannot legally be exported, but pressure is heavy on Congress to lift that ban.

Crude from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota is already refined in three Washington refineries and more oil trains are proposed to serve Northwest and California refineries. Once refined, that oil can legally be exported and sold to Asian markets.

The pressure from Big Energy to reach Asian markets is massive and West Coast terminals have a pricing advantage over the Gulf Coast and Atlantic terminals. Oil Change International, a research and advocacy group focused on fossil fuels, counts 188 terminals in North America already utilizing crude by rail, with 53 more planned or under construction. At any given time, researchers state, about 9 million barrels of oil per day move on U.S. and Canadian railroads. Most of it is headed for refineries on deep water, including the West Coast. 

In the Northwest, tracking by ForestEthics and Sightline, both of which oppose the shipments, counts an additional 1,500 loaded oil and coal ships per year in the Salish Sea if projected terminals are built. Double that number to account for empty ships returning, and you have up to 3,000 new tankers, most larger than the present oil tankers serving the region, estimated at 500 per year.

Much as in the United States, the Canadian export debate is likely to play out in politics both local and national. Prime Minister Harper faces an election in 2015 and parliamentary seats in British Columbia may shift to his opponents. Harper has staunch backers in rural areas, however, and Norman Ruff, a University of Victoria retired professor, doubts a loss significant enough to shift parliamentary control; Tories won 21 of 36 B.C. seats in 2011. But leaders of rival national parties have pledged to reverse Harper on Northern Gateway, assuring its prominence in 2015 voting.

Ben West, a ForestEthics campaign organizer, alluded to the prospect of social protests as well: “First Nations’ rights are the biggest obstacle to Harper’s attempt to ram this forward and thousands of people have pledged to stand with First Nations, including in direct action,” he said. “We will be helping organize non-violent direct action trainings. We hope it doesn’t have to come to that, but we are getting organized to make sure folks will be safe if the courts fail to stop the project in time.”

“Opposition to (Northern Gateway) has set the stage to make it very difficult for Kinder-Morgan to go forward,” West told Crosscut, promising a regional campaign against the other big B.C. proposal. Although Kinder-Morgan would expand an existing pipeline — usually easier than getting permits for a new project — West noted that it bisects crowded urban areas rather than the wilderness route of Northern Gateway.

Replace the negative image of coal with an equally negative image of tar sands and you have two faces of the same coin: Big Energy and big profits fighting lots of regulators and diverse groups trying to hang onto a particular regional lifestyle. Across an entire international region – Cascadia – the outcome of the battles will affect everyone who lives on or near water or a major rail line or pipeline. And the larger fight certainly won’t be over even when it seems like it’s over.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.