Steven Ewart, Calgary Herald, April 20 2012
The focal point of the oilsands debate, which moved from the pastoral U.S. Midwest to the pristine B.C. wilderness, has now shifted to the decidedly troubled waters off Canada's West Coast in response to a plan to ship more oil through the port at Vancouver.
Oil tanker Monterey anchored off Cates Park in North Vancouver, B.C. on Monday, July 5, 2010. Roland Priddle, an economist and former chairman of the National Energy Board, concluded in a report that banning oil tanker traffic from B.C.'s coastal waters would mean "forfeiting a nationally important opportunity." (Photograph by: Glenn Baglo , PNG)
The contentious proposals to pipe oilsands bitumen to the B.C. coast are predicated on moving the oil on tankers to Pacific Rim energy markets.
Amid strident opposition to the 525,000-barrel-a-day Northern Gateway pipeline plan by Enbridge Inc., rival Kinder Morgan surprised people this month by announcing a similar-sized expansion to its 300,000-barrel-a-day TransMountain pipeline into B.C.'s Lower Mainland.
Retrofitting the TransMountain line could be complete by 2017.
Either way, the spectre of hundreds of super tankers - a.k.a. Very Large Crude Carriers, or VLCCs, to the industry - off the B.C. Coast at Vancouver or the Queen Charlotte Islands has made the prospect of oil spills the latest focus of oilsands opponents.
Admittedly, the stakes - both environmental and economic - are high.
A report by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute calls the 30-year economic benefits of a pipeline and port project "staggering."
It found that such a project would increase Canada's GNP by at least $270 billion over that period.
Roland Priddle, an economist and former chairman of the National Energy Board, concluded in the report that banning oil tanker traffic from B.C.'s coastal waters would mean "forfeiting a nationally important opportunity."
Contrast that view with the argument from environmentalists, First Nations and concerned B.C. citizens who contend the risk of even one oil spill on the "West Coast's unique and diverse ocean ecosystem" is too high.
They want B.C.'s coast to be a "tanker-exclusion zone" and are lining up legal challenges. More than 100,000 people have signed a petition from Victoria's Dogwood Initiative opposing tankers in coastal waters.
Since 1972, there has been a ban on oil tankers along 400 kilometres of coastal waters between Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. There have been several private members bills in Parliament to extend the moratorium.
It's been reinvigorated with the oilsands pipeline proposals.
Industry contends there have been dramatic advances in tanker safety. Nearly half of the world's oil moves by tanker and 600,000 barrels a day of petroleum are shipped to Canada. The number of maritime oil spills in Canada has declined from 18 in the 1980s to six in the 1990s to none in the 2000s.
All told, 100,000 vessels transport 360 million tonnes of goods in Canadian waters each year.
For Big Oil, the goal is evident. It wants cheap ocean access to energy markets in Japan, South Korea and Northern Asia. The International Energy Agency has noted "it is hard to overstate the importance of China in global energy markets."
The case for market diversification is compelling, especially after the White House delayed the Keystone XL pipeline. Presumably it's one of the reasons energy has been at the forefront of a pair of trade missions Prime Minister Stephen Harper led to China in the past year.
To ensure oilsands remain an engine of economic growth, there needs to be access to more than one market, with depressed prices, in the U.S. Midwest. The lack of markets is costing Canada's economy billions of dollars a year in oil sales.
For Big Environmental, the aim is equally clear. Protesting oilsands is the best storyline it has to motivate supporters. Oilsands development raises legitimate environmental questions and, equally important, Canada is the only industrialized democracy that can significantly boost its oil production in the foreseeable future.
Protesting heavy oil development in Venezuela, for instance, seems futile.
By 2035, its forecast that 90 per cent of Canada's oil output, or five million barrels a day, could come from oilsands.
However, oilsands production is expensive and struggles to reach the windfall profits of oil elsewhere.
To ensure ongoing viability, access to Pacific Rim markets appears critical.
Despite its efforts, Harper's government isn't necessarily helping. Its move this week to usurp the decision-making power of the NEB to seemingly make it a technical review committee is hardly comforting to oilsands opponents. It was equally discouraging to learn regional offices in the Environmental Emergencies Program that co-ordinates spill cleanups would be closed in budget cuts.
To borrow an old English saying, it appears a penny wise but a pound foolish.
The shipping industry has improved safety since the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska in 1989 with GPS, double-hulled tankers and other advances.
However, BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has reinforced the need for inspection and government oversight.
The pipelines and shipping - like any industrial activity - pose environmental risks but it might be easier to line up support for the initiatives if opponents felt there was stringent oversight of the projects and proceeded because they are in the national interest.
Stephen Ewart is a Herald columnist.
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