Tankers and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Even Possible

Back in the summer, I wrote a blog post entitled Pipelines and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Good Enough. The post was about a leak in a Husky Oil pipeline that had spilled into the North Saskatchewan river and contaminated the drinking water for approximately 70 000 Saskatchewanians (and poisoned the habitat of countless wild creatures that called the river home). My concern was that the regulatory environment around fossil fuel transportation has bowed to pressures from the fossil fuel industry to focus on “responsible outcomes” (i.e. leak and spill clean-up) rather than preventing environmental disasters from happening in the first place. (You can read a letter, signed by representatives from the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Gas Association and sent to the federal government in 2011, here. Many of the industry’s requests later appeared in legislation tabled and passed by the Harper Government).  My point was that, even giving Husky Oil the benefit of the doubt and assuming that pipeline maintenance, observation, and spill response was a top priority for the company and that Husky did the best they could, they were still unable to prevent disaster. Not quite the kind of “responsible outcome” fossil fuel industry representatives had championed.

But what about when, as happens far too often, the “best” isn’t even available? What if, for example, a tugboat pulling a (thankfully empty) fuel barge were to run aground off the coast of the (supposedly protected) Great Bear Rainforest? And right near the clam beaches at Bella Bella, threatening the food security and economic well-being of the Heiltsuk Nation (not to mention fouling their traditional lands and waters)? What if, though the barge itself was empty, the tug, pierced by the sharp rocks of this precarious stretch of coast, began to leak its over 200 000 litres of diesel fuel (and thousands more litres of hydraulic oil, lubricants, and other contaminants) into these precious waters? What if the initial response team had to travel from over 300 km away, and took 20 hours to even arrive at the scene? What if the booms placed around the tug to contain the spill couldn’t withstand the severe weather conditions common on B.C.’s northern coast? Could we say, in that instance, that the industry had done its “best”? Could we say, in that instance, that the government and industry were demonstrating a commitment to “responsible outcomes”? How could the public trust that industry and government will be able respond to a large tanker or barge spill when they couldn’t even contain the fuel tank contents of a tug?

webwcmrcmapofequipmentcachescopyUnfortunately, these questions are not hypotheticals. The tugboat Nathan E. Stewart, which was pulling an empty barge, really did run aground on October 13, just off the coast of Bella Bella, B.C., and it really did leak diesel fuel into the sea,  polluting the clam beaches of the Heiltsuk people and devastating their livelihood. Spill response, which had to come from the nearest Western Canada Marine Response Corp. station in Prince Rupert, over 300 km away, really did take 20 hours to arrive on scene (WCMRC is an industry-funded organization that responds to fossil-fuel spills). The provincial and federal governments, meanwhile, were (to say the least), somewhat unsatisfactory in their responses (the premier’s response was to blame the federal government for their lack of response, and the federal government’s response was to, I’m not sure, chew some gum for about three days?).

It is unknown at this time what the real extent of the damage to Bella Bella has been. It may be a long time before we know the extent of the environmental and economic damage done to the Heiltsuk Nation. In the meantime, the federal government is set to decide whether it will approve further pipeline projects to carry Alberta bitumen to B.C.’s tidewater. Any increase in the volume of fossil fuels reaching the coast, of course, means an increase in tanker traffic, meaning all coastal B.C. residents, not just those in Bella Bella (or those B.C. residents living in the pipeline’s path), are significantly impacted by these decisions.

This is why both government AND the fossil fuel industry have been throwing around phrases like “world class spill response” for the past few years in order to assuage fears about proposed fossil fuel projects. But whatever this “world class” spill response might be, it hasn’t proven it can overcome B.C. geography or its weather (a fact totally ignored by the National Energy Board, which ruled that Kinder Morgan’s spill response plan for the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline is feasible and adequate, despite the fact that experts have warned that the outcomes promised by Kinder Morgan simply will not be possible).

Of course, containing a spill is difficult work. Of course, the B.C. coastline is dangerous and its weather, especially in the winter months, is unpredictable and extreme. Indeed, the technology for overcoming these challenges may not even exist (and the technology for recovering bitumen after it spills into water certainly does not). Even with the best of intentions, a “responsible outcome” may not be possible if another fuel spill were to occur on B.C.’s coast. Which is why maybe, just maybe, the most responsible course of action is not to take that risk at all.

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Environment: Time for Justin Trudeau to Pick a Side

There’s an old adage that says when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. I imagine sayings like these are on Justin Trudeau’s mind as he coifs his hair each morning and wonders where his “sunny ways” went wrong. Or maybe he’s not concerned, because he’s too busy doing one-armed push-ups and taking selfies and trying to insist that the “middle ground” is actually a fertile place from which to grow our future.

I don’t mind that Justin Trudeau is part of a political “dynasty”. I don’t mind that he and his wife are young and good-looking. I don’t mind that they are from Quebec. I don’t mind that Trudeau used to be a drama teacher before his political career (teachers and artists are often exceptionally selfless and intelligent people and I think many of them would make great leaders). I don’t mind that he smoked pot. I don’t care that part of Trudeau’s household budget is being spent on nannies (Mulroney’s household did the same). I don’t mind that he wants to take selfies with people and seem “accessible” to Canadians (actually, I do mind the photos a little because I’d rather see Canada known for policy, not personality). I don’t care that he’s a bit of a ham and I don’t even care that he’s a Liberal.

What I DO mind is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to please everyone–is trying to claim a “middle ground” in several either/or situations and is, simultaneously, pissing off just about everybody on both sides of the issue. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in his government’s position on the environment.

At the moment, folks on the “right-wing” or “conservative” side of the political environmental debate are pissed at Trudeau because he does things like sign Paris climate deals, spout a lot of hot air about Canada being “back”, and because, when the country’s reliance on the oil industry resulted in a lot of lost jobs and financial uncertainty as oil prices plummeted, he was tone-deaf enough to say that those communities left out of the federal government’s EI benefits “should be pleased that they are not hit as hard as other parts of the country and indeed the province have been”. Cold comfort when you’re trying to keep food on your family’s table and shoes on your kids.

At the same time, folks on the “left-wing”, or rather (since the environment we live in affects both right and left), the “green” side of the issue, are pissed at Trudeau because he signs Paris climate deals, spouts a lot of hot air about Canada being “back” as an ally in the fight against global climate catastrophe, and then goes ahead and lets undemocratic, ethically suspect, Harper-appointed bodies like the National Energy Board (NEB) go ahead and approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion (which will, incidentally, have a profoundly negative impact on the communities in which I live and work). A lot of people (including me) have called Trudeau a dummy in the past, but surely not even he actually believes that supporting crude oil pipelines (i.e. increasing the amount of oil sands bitumen that will be extracted, transported, and burned as fuel) will somehow lead to a “greener” future for this country.

Spectacularly, that is exactly the claim that Trudeau is trying to make, and a claim SFU professor of sustainable energy Mark Jaccard had no qualms about eviscerating when interviewed by Maclean’s. When it comes to Trudeau’s wishy-washy statements on pipelines being used to fund a green transition:

Jaccard can only shake his head and chuckle. “What we’re beginning to hear from the federal government now—‘We’re going to fund green infrastructure and innovation’—those are faking-it policies. You’ve got to either regulate or price.” Asked specifically about Trudeau’s vision of a “transitional period”—an era when new pipelines would be built and oil sands production encouraged, apparently all to pay for the advent of the post-carbon economy—Jaccard forgets to laugh. “It’s bunk, total bunk,” he says, “and please quote me.”

No problem, professor. I’m quoting you with relish. “Total bunk,” says an expert on the subject, YOU HEAR THAT, JUSTIN, YOU LILY-LIVERED BUFFOON?!

I despised Stephen Harper as much as I can despise any person who didn’t actually murder or maim someone, but at least he had the conviction to just come right out and say (I’m paraphrasing) that he didn’t give a shit about the environment and that he didn’t think climate change was a problem. It takes guts to stand up in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus and the devastating effects of human-caused climate change (like last year’s typhoon in the Philippines which killed 20 000 people) and just be like, “Nah, I don’t care. Kyoto’s for losers.” What pisses me off so much about Trudeau is that he not only pretends to care about climate change, he actually goes on the international stage and takes credit for caring, and then turns around and gives crude oil pipelines the ol’ thumbs up, as if we aren’t watching. But we are, and we’re disappointed.

Oil companies don’t give a shit about Canadians. But our government should. Oil companies don’t think about the long-term interests of the nation they’re digging up and traversing, but our government really should. It’s time for Trudeau to stop leaving it up to unelected morally bereft bodies like the NEB and foreign corporations and actually take a stance based on what he believes is  the best way forward.

So what’s it gonna be, Prime Minister: is Canada truly “back”, or just back to the same old oily tricks?

Let's hope he meant it!

Let’s hope he meant it!

[Note: leadnow.ca has a petition circulating to ask Trudeau to reject the NEB’s approval of the Kinder Morgan expansion. Please consider signing here.]