By Andrew Nikiforuk
August 27, 2012
Shipping dirty tar sands oil could rip apart Canada’s wilderness — and its democracy
You should know a few things about the Gitga’at people. They live in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, just south of Alaska, and speak the Tsimshian language. They dance and sing like spirited Maori warriors. The women speak softly to living cedar trees when they harvest a single strip of bark for basket or hat making. Every summer the Gitga’at greet returning schools of pink and chum salmon with smiles and shouts of “Ayoo, ayoo.” Each member of the Gitga’at nation possesses a traditional name — Gu thlaag, for example, means “the very instant that lightning hits a tree and the tree splits apart.” For the past 10,000 years the Gitga’at have set their dinner tables with bounty from the sea, including salmon, cockles, crab, and halibut. In recent years they have struggled as commercial fisheries have declined in the region, yet the Pacific Ocean still defines them.
About one-quarter of the 750 or so Gitga’at people live in Hartley Bay, a picturesque village that lies in a mist-shrouded forest just west of the mighty Quaal River, near the mouth of a fjord called the Douglas Channel. The community is 120 miles south of Alaska and a two-and-a-half-hour boat ride from the port of Kitimat. But Hartley Bay may soon lose its remoteness as well as its ocean bounty. Enbridge, the giant Canadian pipeline company that spilled more than 20,000 barrels of toxic bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, now wants to build two pipelines from Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat. The import line would take 193,000 barrels of foreign condensate (a gasoline-like substance) brought in by supertankers and pump it more than 700 miles to the tar sands to dilute the heavy crude, which has the consistency of molasses. The export line would then carry 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen back to the coast — every day.
The twin pipeline proposal, known as Northern Gateway and funded largely by Chinese state-owned oil companies, would bring about 220 tankers to Hartley Bay’s doorstep every year. But for the past six years the Gitga’at community and its coastal neighbors have politely but steadfastly informed Enbridge executives that they have no intention of putting their food supply at risk from tanker spills, just so that tar-sands developers can put more cars on the road in smoggy Shanghai. Nor are they willing to exchange their views of rising humpback whales for supertankers eight times larger than the Exxon Valdez.
The Gitga’at belong to Coastal First Nations (CFN), an alliance of 10 nations and 20,000 people whose territory occupies about two-thirds of the British Columbia coastline. Under the Canadian constitution, the federal government (as well as private corporations) has a duty to consult with First Nations on projects like Northern Gateway, especially with those nations that have not relinquished by treaty their title or right to their homelands and waters. Officials from Enbridge originally promised to respect the wishes of these coastal dwellers. But in September 2011 Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel admitted to First Nations leaders that his company had done a poor job of consultation. “We don’t want to build this project with strong opposition…we want to listen and understand,” he added.
Yet the CFN sees only a trail of broken promises. “They want a battle with First Nations and we are up for the challenge,” says Art Sterritt, the alliance’s 64-year-old executive director and a member of the Gitga’at. “We fight best when we have a common enemy.”
Eighty-six-year-old Helen Clifton is the matriarch of the Killer Whale clan of the Gitga’at nation. Her Gitga’at name, Gwula Nax Nox, means “always seeing.” In the quiet of her living room, she calls the megaproject a threat to her people’s food, which, she says, has been blessed by the Creator. “There has got to be a time when you say no and a time to step back,” she says. “You can’t challenge Mother Nature.”
The Gitga’at are not alone in what is shaping up as an epic battle for the future of Canadian democracy. The ruling Conservative Party, headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has based its economic strategy on an aggressive push for hydrocarbon development, hoping to turn Canada into an “emerging energy superpower” akin to Saudi Arabia. Over the past decade, many of the world’s richest corporations, including ExxonMobil, Shell, and China’s state-owned refining giant Sinopec, have poured tens of billions of dollars into the controversial tar sands project, responding in part to Canada’s low taxes and royalties. A chunk of forest and muskeg the size of the state of Delaware will be excavated in the process. Bitumen, a dirty fuel that requires a huge amount of energy for conversion into synthetic crude, is now Canada’s most profitable export to the United States, dominating refining markets in the Midwest. Currently the tar sands produce about 1.6 million barrels a day, but Northern Gateway and its Asian tankers would increase that almost threefold by 2035.
However, there’s a problem. Unfettered development of the tar sands has already produced a bitumen glut in North American markets at the same time that demand for oil on the continent has peaked and is now steadily declining. As a consequence, Canada can’t become a global petro-power without getting its bitumen to tidewater ports.
To get a million barrels of bitumen a day to the Gulf of Mexico at Port Arthur, Texas, the Harper government strenuously lobbied politicians in Washington on behalf of the Keystone XL pipeline. When that project became bogged down in public protests and regulatory delays, Harper abandoned a 2008 policy that restricted bitumen shipments to China and became an outspoken cheerleader for Enbridge and Northern Gateway. Putting bitumen on supertankers bound for Asia “will require some significant infrastructure projects to go forward,” Harper said recently in Bangkok. “And we’re obviously…looking at taking steps necessary to ensure we can get timely regulatory decisions.”
There is nothing subtle about Harper or the “necessary steps” he has taken. His government has been characterized by the Economist as “intolerant of criticism and dissent,” with a penchant for rule-breaking. Early in 2012 it branded First Nations and environmental groups opposed to Northern Gateway, including the Canadian office of the U.S.-based nonprofit ForestEthics and the David Suzuki Foundation, as foreign-funded “radicals” opposed to economic prosperity. Environmental groups with charitable status that have challenged bitumen mining have been subjected to federal investigation. And to make sure that Enbridge’s pipeline experiences none of the delays that have beset Keystone XL, the Harper government launched a concerted attack in March and April on most of Canada’s main environmental laws.
“The debate is no longer about a pipeline,” says Robyn Allan, an economist and former CEO of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. “It’s about an energy strategy designed in the boardrooms of Big Oil that’s being forced on the Canadian public.”
Enbridge already moves more than two million barrels of oil a day through some of the world’s longest pipelines. Like the Harper government, it portrays Northern Gateway as Canada’s “path to the future.” Janet Holder, the company’s executive vice president for western access, told a crowd of Toronto business leaders last May that the pipeline may be Canada’s single most important infrastructure project, given that oil has become the nation’s most lucrative export, worth $67 billion in 2011. Yes, Holder admitted, the project might be controversial, but only because it was being proposed “in a region where oil pipelines have not existed for decades, which naturally gives rise to concerns among local residents about the local environment.”
That, to put it mildly, is an understatement. Enbridge’s pipeline is a technically challenging piece of engineering that would cross more than 700 salmon-bearing waterways fed by snowcapped mountains in Canada’s most spectacular geography: the Great Bear Rainforest. The forest supports surprising gatherings of white spirit bears, black bears, and grizzlies, which assemble at the mouths of clear-running rivers in the fall, together with countless eagles, to feed on some of the world’s greatest salmon runs. These ancient river oases, located at the base of some of the deepest fjords on the planet, are a reminder of what the earth once was: a wild place.
The rainforest, covering a protected area twice the size of Yellowstone, is home to about 30,000 people and 28 distinct First Nations. Their flamboyant aboriginal culture created such a wealth of remarkable wood-based art in the form of totem poles and facial masks that it helped inspire the European Surrealist movement. The rainforest also represents a novel economic vision. In 2006, after a decade-long conservation battle, First Nations, the logging industry, and environmental groups, including ForestEthics and the Natural Resources Defense Council, forged an unprecedented agreement to protect both the forest and its island-studded coastline. More than $100 million, some of which came from U.S. foundations, was raised to manage the rainforest under a plan that called for (and still does call for) ecotourism, renewable energy, sustainable forest products, shellfish aquaculture, and the restoration of First Nations’ access to fisheries. It is about making a living — as opposed to a killing — and not being dependent on one industry, says Sterritt, who logged and fished in the region as a young man.
The Harper government initially signed on to the ambitious plan. Together with Tides Canada, an environmental and social justice organization, it proposed to fund a large protected area, known as the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area, off the coast of the Great Bear, stretching from Alaska to Vancouver Island. But then Enbridge officials came calling with their $5.5 billion plan for pipelines and tankers. They even showed up in Hartley Bay and offered the Gitga’at the chance to run an oil-spill cleaning company, recalls Marven Robinson, a 43-year-old local First Nation official and ecotour guide. Robinson told the officials that the Gitga’at weren’t interested. (Later the company came back with another offer: he could own and operate the tugboats needed to guide supertankers through the Douglas Channel. The answer was the same: no thanks. “It’s just crazy what they think money can buy,” says Robinson, whose Gitga’at name, Maan Giis Heitk, means “one step higher.”)
When Enbridge officials approached the Coastal First Nations with their pipeline proposal, Sterritt asked if they genuinely intended to respect aboriginal sovereignty. Enbridge said yes, and even gave the CFN $100,000 to do its own research on pipelines and tankers. The group spent much of the money gathering information in Alaska, finding out what it could about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and the Exxon Valdez disaster.
In many respects the 800-mile-long pipeline, which zigzags from Prudhoe Bay to the Port of Valdez, Alaska, and at its peak pumped two million barrels of oil a day (today it moves only a quarter of that amount), mirrors the complexity and scope of the Northern Gateway project. The Alaska pipeline crosses tundra and more than 800 rivers and streams, while Northern Gateway would have to traverse the Rocky Mountains as well as those 700 fish-bearing waterways. In Valdez, native people and commercial fishermen told their visitors that the consortium managing the Alaska pipeline, including ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips, had promised a spill-proof system. But according to federal records, the project suffered an average of 480 spills a year between 1977 and 1999. In 1991 the Government Accountability Office described regulatory oversight of the Alaska pipeline as inadequate, and recent ruptures and accidents suggest that little has changed. One independent study in 2009 by the petroleum consultant Richard Fineberg noted that problems of management, engineering, and lax government oversight continued to plague the system.
The Alaskans also told their Canadian visitors about the Exxon Valdez. Although the ship’s owners blamed the 257,100-barrel spill on an alcoholic captain, the disaster, as noted by Steve Coll in his book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, was “abetted by inadequate regulations and corporate safety systems.” The tanker didn’t have a large enough crew to navigate the hazards of Prince William Sound, and the Port of Valdez didn’t have enough equipment to respond to the spill. As a consequence, the oil contaminated 3,200 miles of shoreline and spread almost 1,200 miles from the accident scene. It caused the collapse of the herring industry, badly damaged the pink salmon fishery, and halved seafood harvests for aboriginal groups. It killed more than 100,000 seabirds and 3,500 sea otters. Communities sank into alcohol and despair. “The Alaskans told us that the industry will break every covenant and promise they make,” says Sterritt.
Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and former commercial fisher who has written two books on the disaster, warned that a tanker accident off the Great Bear Rainforest could be worse than the Exxon Valdezcalamity. For a start, the Douglas Channel and Hecate Strait offer more narrow passages and hairpin turns than Prince William Sound. In addition, diluted bitumen would behave much differently from crude oil in a tanker spill. While the gasoline-like condensate would rapidly evaporate, the heavy bitumen would sink into the ocean like a rock (something not mentioned in Enbridge’s application for Northern Gateway). “So how do you clean it up?” asks Ott. “It’s more toxic than conventional oil because it contains more polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are really long-term bad actors on human health.” Ott’s basic message was simple: “As long as we drill it, we are going to spill it.”
In 2009, after three years of debate, the CFN told Enbridge that no good could come from the pipeline or tankers. Ever since then, the company and the First Nations have been on a collision course. In January 2012, the alliance issued a report warning that, given the intended volume of tanker traffic, as many as three spills of at least 10,000 barrels were likely to occur during the 30-year lifespan of the project. Enbridge’s Pat Daniel has acknowledged that it’s impossible to guarantee that there will be no spills (although he notes that Enbridge wouldn’t in any case be liable — that would be the concern of companies such as China’s Sinopec). As for pipeline leaks, Enbridge says it is under no obligation to quantify the risk, boasting only that its safety standards will be “world class” and challenging the public to “judge us by what we’ve done — year in, year out — through our 60-year history.”
That’s a problematic invitation. Since 2000 Enbridge pipelines have spilled 132,715 barrels of crude, and in 2010 the company experienced a major disaster in Michigan, when Line 6B, which moves about 190,000 barrels of crude a day, ruptured and leaked 840,000 gallons of diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands, contaminating 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River. It was the largest onshore spill in U.S. history, and the cleanup has so far cost more than $800 million. A damning report by the National Transportation Safety Board in July 2012 condemned Enbridge for its “culture of deviance,” comparing the company’s chaotic management of the Kalamazoo spill to the Keystone Kops. (Months after the incident, Enbridge executives all got sizable pay raises.)
By the beginning of this year the Canadian government realized that its aspirations to become an energy superpower were in trouble. The Obama administration had delayed Keystone XL; the Kalamazoo spill had become a public relations disaster for Enbridge; and light oil production from the Bakken field in North Dakota had weakened U.S. demand for Canadian bitumen. And the First Nations had made their opposition to Northern Gateway clear.
The Harper government went on the offensive. Already, in the fall of 2011, it had withdrawn abruptly from the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area, explaining that it was no longer “practical” to manage 39,400 square miles of whale and salmon habitat and that it needed to “streamline” the process. (Just six months earlier Enbridge lobbyists had argued that the conservation plan could be used by the First Nations to limit tanker traffic off the coast and kill Northern Gateway.) Harper, speaking on national television, denigrated the very idea of a special conservation area in the Great Bear Rainforest. “Just because certain people in the United States would like to see Canada be one giant national park for the northern half of North America,” he said, “I don’t think that’s part of what our review process [for Northern Gateway] is all about.”
In January, one day before federal hearings on the environmental impacts of Northern Gateway were set to begin, Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver accused critics of the project, such as the Gitga’at and environmental groups, of using funding from U.S. charitable foundations — which he characterized as “foreign special interest groups” — to “undermine Canada’s national economic interest” and block a historic opportunity “to diversify our trade.” He vowed to stop them with new regulations. When asked about the nearly $20 billion in foreign money poured into the tar sands projects by state-owned Chinese companies, he replied that this was different. “They’re helping us build infrastructure to help us diversify our market,” he said. “Other groups are trying to impede…economic progress.”
In March the Harper government attached to a routine budget bill, Bill C-38, dozens of legislative changes to the country’s environmental laws. The bill passed without a single amendment. Laws that might stand in the way of pipelines, tankers, or bitumen mining were rewritten or amended. Science-based agencies were axed. Even Canada’s most conservative newspaper, the National Post, was shocked by Harper’s actions, calling them in an editorial “unacceptable and inexplicable.”
The short title of Bill C-38 was the Jobs, Growth, and Long-term Prosperity Act, but it may go down in history as the Enbridge Enhancement Act. Enbridge had lobbied hard for changes to Canada’s Fisheries Act, one of the nation’s oldest and most powerful pieces of environmental legislation, arguing that the provisions protecting fish habitat were “too onerous.” The new version of the act aims to prevent “serious harm” only to those fish that are deemed commercially important. All protections for amphibians, reptiles, mussels, crayfish, and other aquatic creatures have disappeared. The Harper government acknowledges that these changes may make it much easier for the Northern Gateway pipeline to cross hundreds of waterways.
This gutting of the Fisheries Act appalled not only environmental groups but several former federal fisheries ministers, including the Conservative John Fraser, who told the Vancouver Sun, “I say this as a lifelong conservative. People who want to eliminate the appropriate safeguards….aren’t conservatives at all, they’re ideological right-wingers with very, very limited understanding, intelligence, or wisdom.”
The 425-page omnibus bill didn’t stop with fish. It also amended the Navigable Waters Protection Act so that pipelines are no longer subject to its provisions. Cabinet ministers can now grant exemptions from the Species at Risk Act, which covers 15 species along the pipeline route, putting at increased risk woodland caribou in bitumen mining areas as well as threatened birds like the short-tailed albatross.
As Oliver had promised, the government rewrote the country’s Environmental Assessment Act, which controls federal review of projects such as Northern Gateway. The changes to the law reduce the number of projects subject to review, limit public involvement, and narrow the definition of “environmental effects.” As a consequence, says the Toronto environmental law firm Willms & Shier, “the list of eligible intervenors… will be slashed, the timeline will be compressed, and the Cabinet will be given the authority to overrule the Review Panel’s final recommendation if it sees fit.”
In addition, the bill set aside $8 million for the Canada Revenue Agency to investigate the political activities of registered charities such as environmental NGOs and Tides Canada. Without producing any evidence, Environment Minister Peter Kent accused such organizations of “money laundering” of U.S. funds. (None of the nation’s top 10 foreign-funded charities are environmental groups, and Canadian law clearly permits charities and NGOs to receive foreign foundation funding and also to conduct political advocacy, provided this does not exceed 10 percent of their charitable activities.) In response to this witch hunt, the environmentalist David Suzuki resigned from his own foundation to retain his freedom to speak out on energy issues, and Forest Ethics split into two separate organizations, one of which will focus solely on advocacy work. “This smearing of environmental groups, this undermining of the role of environmental organizations in the environmental debate, is blatant and aggressive and gratuitous,” said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, in a recent magazine interview. “This is not something we’ve ever seen before.”
The bill also slashed funding for critical environmental research programs. Federal science teams working on air pollution and marine toxicology were disbanded. The world’s most famous freshwater research station, the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario, was closed down. That scientific jewel, which studied the behavior of pollutants in whole lake systems for 44 years, had produced research that drove global public policy on pollution from phosphates, acid rain, and mercury. Scientists from around the world expressed dismay at its closure. The distinguished marine ecologist Ragnar Elmgren of Stockholm University called it “an act of wanton destruction…the kind of act one expects from the Taliban in Afghanistan, not from the government of a civilized and educated nation.”
While it has removed most legislative and scientific obstacles to Northern Gateway, the Harper government has failed to bolster waning public support for the project. The scathing indictment by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board of Enbridge’s bungled response to the Kalamazoo River spill created a political uproar in Canada. Nor has the Harper government yet extinguished the constitutional land claims and rights of the Gitga’at and other First Nations. Art Sterritt of the Coastal First Nations warns that legal action is imminent and could drag on for years, perhaps going all the way to the Supreme Court. Harper’s own former environment minister, Jim Prentice, who left the administration in 2010 to become a senior bank official, fears that the government’s open cheerleading for bitumen, combined with its failure to respect aboriginal ownership of lands along the pipeline route, could spell a greater political calamity for the tar sands. “The real risk is not regulatory rejection but regulatory approval, undermined by subsequent legal challenges and the absence of ‘social license’ to operate,”Prentice wrote in June in the Vancouver Sun.
At Enbridge’s annual meeting in May, Pat Daniel, who has announced that he will step down as CEO this fall, vented his frustration at the opposition to Northern Gateway. How can people say no to it, he asked, while saying yes “to lights, cooked food, school buses, warm homes, and diesel-powered trains? It’s a glaring disconnect in society.”
Indeed it is. In February I traveled to Prince Rupert, an old salmon cannery town of 12,500 people, 45 minutes north of Hartley Bay by air. Nearly 2,000 people, both white and aboriginal, had gathered for a peaceful march. At a rally, scores of chiefs and elders representing as many as 40 First Nations from across British Columbia voiced their fierce opposition to the Enbridge pipeline in a variety of aboriginal languages. Dancers from Hartley Bay pounded their drums and sang ancient songs about salmon, ravens, and whales. An 11-year-old girl from the Sliammon First Nation, Ta’Kaiya Blaney, silenced the crowd with a composition called “Shallow Waters.” “Come with me to the emerald sea,” she sang,
 “where black gold spills into my ocean dreams.” She got a standing ovation.