VICTORIA – The federal government stepped up its sales pitch for new pipelines to the B.C. coast last week, as it prepares for the imminent release of the federal review panel’s report on the feasibility of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver arrived in Vancouver to release an expert panel’s report on the current state of tanker safety on the West Coast. It was the first of two reports that tell the Stephen Harper government in blunt terms how steep a hill it must climb to enable energy exports to Asia.
Oliver gave a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade the following morning, where he vowed to implement one of the panel’s key recommendations. Legislation is coming to ensure that polluters, not taxpayers, must pay for any environmental damage from resource development and transport.
The panel was chaired by Gordon Houston, a former Prince Rupert harbourmaster and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver. Its report details the little-noticed fact that coastal waters around Victoria and Vancouver are already congested with shipping traffic, including Alaska oil tankers, and are at “very high risk” of an incident.
Of course that “very high risk” should be seen in the B.C. context, where there has never been a serious oil spill at sea in a century of continuous petroleum shipping.
The report calls for potential polluters to show they are prepared for a “worst case” discharge like the 1989 Exxon Valdez grounding in Alaska. It tells Ottawa the Canadian Coast Guard must be properly funded to serve as incident command.
Oliver recounted efforts made so far, including annual tanker inspections, increased aerial surveillance and marine markers. And he reminded his audience that Canada’s only energy export customer, the U.S., is about to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest petroleum producer.
The second federal report was from Doug Eyford, a lawyer who has been meeting for months with aboriginal communities in northern B.C. and Alberta.
He found, as Enbridge has reported, that many aboriginal communities are working with energy producers to get the economic activity they so desperately need. (Most urban people likely don’t believe this, because the conflict-addicted media report mostly protests.)
Eyford’s report is no whitewash either. It reminds Ottawa that B.C.’s unresolved aboriginal title and a general lack of trust of both the energy industry and the federal government are key obstacles to the largest economic opportunity in the world today, the rise of Asia.
Eyford was dealing with the profusion of gas pipeline projects that are set to cross northern B.C., as well as the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan Canada oil proposals. The entrenched opposition is against oil, particularly heavy oil in tankers.
Politics and protesters aside, these are the facts for B.C. The prosperous provinces in Canada today are Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, based mainly on energy development. The rest are struggling.
B.C. continues to lose skilled workers to Alberta, where oil sands development continues to expand despite the continuing chorus of U.S.-financed misrepresentation of its environmental impact.
It’s a key moment in Canadian history. This is where we see if we can go beyond our status as a client state of the U.S.
This year’s B.C. election, where pandering to urban protest backfired on the NDP, suggests a new seriousness in the public mood.
More people understand today that our comfortable modern society with free-access health care is a fragile thing. We have it better than most of the world, for now.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc