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Canadian Democracy: Death by Pipeline

WATERS AT RISK The Northern Gateway pipeline would cross hundreds of rivers like this one, prime habitat for bears and salmon.
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."

NRDC: A Dirty Business

Danielle Droitsch

Q&A with the director of NRDC’s Canada program, based in Washington, D.C., and a former resident of Alberta, where she saw the development of the tar sands firsthand.

There seems to be a growing concern in the United States about importing oil from the Canadian tar sands. Why do you think that is happening?

Americans are slowly learning more about the tar sands, especially as opposition has grown to pipelines such as Keystone XL, which would bring dirty oil from Alberta through the American heartland to Texas. There are also new pipeline proposals that would increase the volume of tar sands oil flowing through the Midwest and perhaps also through the Northeast. The pipelines needed to transport this particular oil are more complicated than others from a technical point of view. Tar sands oil is more toxic and corrosive and has a greater potential to cause spills. So these pipelines pose a threat to water and farmland, which is why communities in places like Nebraska have fought back against Keystone XL. In the end, the risks far outweigh any rewards.

Read the rest here.

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.

image of Andrew Nikiforuk
One of Canada's leading journalists, Andrew Nikiforuk won the 2009 Rachel Carson Environmental Book Award for his expose on Alberta's growing tar sands industry (which grew out of his OnEarth article "Canada's Highway to Hell"). His latest book, Empi... READ MORE >
A good follow-up report might include information from the BC Pilots organization whose membership would be responsible for safely navigating to/from Kitimat despite high-risk waters, 90+Kt outflow winds, huge 10+m seas offshore, and complex vessel traffic. This isn't Prince William Sound (which is relatively easy when global warmed glaciers aren't discharging into the traffic lanes), this is TIGHT.
This was a very informative read. An article like this should end with a call for action. What can I do? I want to help and it looks like ~600 people "like" your message so how can we bring more strength and resources to this opposition and the First Nations?
Andrew Superb job of summing up this drawn-out, evolving issue. Living in the Northwest, I'm on the front line for risk (perhaps a trench or two behind the Git Ga'at). What most Canadians fail to recognize is that they're all on the front line as their democracy diminishes and their rights disappear. Keep up the fine work. I go out of my way to read your posts on these issues, and to pass them on. Al Lehmann Terrace, BC
To view the future of our own environmental and political future we need merely look across the border to the corporate influence (both foreign and domestic) and extreme conservative leadership that has Canada stripped of it's environmental and personal protection laws. Vote wisely.