Nothing has been as divisive to national unity as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in the 25 years since the Quebec independence referendum. But unlike separation, this project – approved again last week by the federal government – is good for the country and will benefit all Canadians.
Moving to Vancouver two years ago from Calgary, I educated myself on the subject and the perspectives of both sides of the debate. A strong supporter of the environment, I’ve written much about irresponsible resource development over the years, particularly under Alberta’s successive Conservative governments, which relied too heavily on industry self-regulation.
For too many years, governments failed to do the right thing, so the cynicism out there is justified.
The ignorance, however, is not.
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And ignorance is what I kept encountering in my quest to understand the opposition to Trans Mountain.
I heard repeatedly that Vancouver’s beautiful port would be ruined by tanker traffic, which would increase seven-fold if the project went ahead. That seems like a big number until you realize just five tankers a month now ship bitumen out of Trans Mountain’s Westridge Marine Terminal. Seven-fold means an increase of just slightly more than one tanker a day.
Next came concerns about increased greenhouse gas emissions. But contrary to popular belief, even if overall oil sands production increases because of the new pipeline, total emissions won’t because former Alberta NDP premier Rachel Notley put a hard cap on emissions. So far, new UCP Premier Jason Kenney says he’ll keep the cap, although he has scrapped the carbon tax.
What will increase is the percentage of oil sold at much higher prices than the deep discounts we give to our one customer at the moment, the United States.
For an issue that’s been so polarizing, and has taken up so much of the national oxygen in recent years, the arguments against it are surprisingly flawed. They’re put forward mainly by anti-oil activists who simply want to shut down Canada’s fossil-fuel economy overnight. Leave our oil in the ground, they say.
But that’s hardly sound financial planning. The world still needs our resources and Canada’s economy still needs this industry. As long as we can sell our product for more than what it costs to develop it, why would we leave it in the ground? Which one of us could afford to turn our back on a personal asset that still holds tremendous value? What country can afford to do the same with its assets – natural resources?
Certainly, time is running out on our carbon economy, with or without a new pipeline. One way or another, Canada needs a plan, and fast, for a sustainable, low-carbon future.
But that future isn’t here yet, no matter how much some of us wish it to be. We’re in a transition period.
Pipelines are still the safest way to transport flammable liquids – much safer than by train. The accident in Lac-Megantic, Que., in July 2013 was a reminder of the dangers of transporting oil by train. Petroleum tanks carried by rail exploded and the town caught fire. Forty-seven people died in the horrific accident.
Endangered white whales face serious threats in the area with or without the pipeline expansion. They’ve been overwhelmed by noise pollution in their habitat, preventing them from using echolocation to hunt their prey. Noise masks the sound orcas use to hunt and, combined with a shortage of salmon, it means they’re starving.
What activists don’t talk about is the overall impact on the whales of the day-to-day activity of the busy and growing Port of Vancouver, including ferry traffic. Overall marine traffic increases every year, but its impact isn’t measured because it’s organic growth and not part of a new project that must pass rigorous standards for approval.
Some 3,160 vessels visit the Port of Vancouver every year – about nine ships a day. That’s expected to increase to 12 ships a day by 2026.
With the federal government’s recent approval of the pipeline expansion, much has been done to mitigate and address the risks to the whales, along with other concerns raised over the project.
All that’s left to argue – and it has been argued loudly – is the risk of a major spill. Everything carries risk, but some irresponsible viral reports say an oil spill is a certainty if the project proceeds.
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation says the likelihood of a spill in Burrard Inlet over the next 50 years is as high as 87 per cent. But this alarmist message includes small spills of less than 1,000 barrels.
In fact, there has never been an oil spill – or any major incident – involving a tanker on Canada’s West Coast.
The federal Pilotage Act of 1972 demands the highest tanker traffic safeguards. Two Transport Canada-licensed marine pilots must take control of any tanker passing through Canadian waters.
These marine pilots and the authorities who govern them are accountable to the public, not to the companies that own the ships.
“Tankers don’t keep me up at night,” says Kevin Obermeyer, CEO of Pacific Pilotage Authority. “Other things do, but not tankers because we have so many levels of safety.”
Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which is responsible for protecting and responding to a marine spill along the 27,000 km of B.C. coastline, regularly hosts public education demonstrations. They were in Coal Harbour recently simulating a spill recovery, with more skimmers and recovery boats than you ever want to see that close to the city.
The Transport Canada-certified organization showed off one of three new oil spill response vessels bought to enhance marine safety as tanker traffic increases, at $5.8 million each. A fourth will be added now that the pipeline expansion has been approved.
Vancouver Harbour has never been so well protected. Some $150 million will be invested in oil spill response enhancements, including a new base in Vancouver with crews monitoring marine traffic around the clock for the first time.
Western Canada Marine Response Corp. is doubling its employees, adding more than 120 full-time jobs and 40 new response vessels. That will reduce initial response times to a maximum of two hours for Vancouver Harbour and the Fraser River west of Port Mann Bridge.
It’s all being done to ensure that Canadians can enjoy the benefits of getting our oil to market, without suffering the catastrophe of a major spill.
And hopefully it puts an end to uninformed concerns about pipeline expansion.
Paula Arab is a Vancouver-based writer and media strategist.
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