Art Sterritt is the executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of aboriginal groups in British Columbia. Though living about 1,200 kilometres west of the oilsands, Sterritt and other native leaders in the area have developed a keen interest in the production of thick black bitumen.
That’s because oilsands developers and Enbridge are proposing the $8-billion Northern Gateway pipeline be built between northern Alberta and the B.C. coast. It would move 525,000 barrels a day of diluted bitumen to Kitimat. There, it would be loaded onto tankers that would have to navigate chains of islands and narrow channels before reaching open sea en route to Asia.
The coastal First Nations in the area, known as the Great Bear Rainforest, make up the majority of the population, and they don’t want the pipeline. They particularly don’t want tankers full of diluted bitumen — which is much thicker than crude oil — in waters where salmon abound in a complex ecosystem that has supported their people for centuries.
“We are never going to allow pipelines as long as (the oil) can’t be cleaned up,” Sterritt told an audience in Calgary in June. “We know what happened just to the north of us with the Exxon Valdez.”
DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Haisla First Nation hereditary chiefs attend hearings on the proposed $8-billion Northern Gateway pipeline in B.C. in 2012. The pipeline was eventually approved, with 209 conditions.
In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker struck Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. It was the worst American spill up to that point, damaging more than 2,000 kilometres of shoreline and killing hundreds of thousands of birds and marine animals and untold numbers of fish.
The Northern Gateway pipeline was the subject of extensive public hearings by the National Energy Board in 2012 and 2013, during which Sterritt’s group and others registered their fears. In the end, the National Energy Board approved it with 209 conditions that must be met before it proceeds. The Harper government seconded the motion when it gave its approval a few months later.
But many doubt the pipeline will ever be built because it is the subject of 18 court cases. Enbridge has confirmed that it won’t be in service by 2018, as previously predicted.
That’s fine with Sterritt, who asserts that it is incumbent on the oil companies to figure out how to clean up a spill should a tanker rupture or capsize.
“So far they haven’t done that,” he said. “There is no technology available to clean up oil spills. They just keep telling us that the chances of a spill are very low. But that’s not good enough.”
According to the final report of the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel, there is significant disagreement among experts about whether the heavy diluted bitumen would sink to the sea bottom if a tanker ruptured, making it much more difficult to clean up than if it were floating on the surface. Enbridge says the diluted bitumen would float, but intervenors from Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans testified that their studies were inconclusive.
The joint review panel decided that a spill is “not likely to sink as a continuous layer that coats the seabed or riverbed.” But some of the conditions Enbridge must now meet deal with spill response and require further research on the likelihood that diluted bitumen would sink.
Meanwhile, bitumen is being transported by existing pipelines and trains. But as production at oilsands operations increases, there will be more pressure to build a pipeline such as the Northern Gateway.
DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Douglas Channel is the proposed end point of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry 525,000 barrels a day of diluted bitumen from northern Alberta to the B.C. coast. Experts say more research is needed on the effects of an oil spill involving oilsands products.