Pipeline and Tanker Trouble: New report shows the impact to British Columbia's communities, rivers and Pacific coastline from tar sands oil transport

photo of B.C. mountains, september 2011

A report released today by NRDC, the Pembina Institute and the Living Oceans Society shows the enormous social, economic, and environmental costs to British Columbia of a proposed tar sands pipeline and the associated oil supertanker traffic that it would bring to the glorious Pacific coast. But while the benefits of such a pipeline would be enjoyed by the major oil companies, the costs in the case of oil spills would be borne British Columbia for decades to come. The Northern Gateway pipeline should not be built and the associated oil supertanker traffic should not be allowed. Globally, we have cleaner energy choices than tar sands and the destruction it leaves in its path from extraction to transportation.

While the potentially devastating impacts of tar sands production are well documented, the increased risk and potential harm from transporting bitumen is less known and that is why this report comes at an important moment in the campaign that has been waged for years in British Columbia to stop Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. With TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline that would have brought tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast undergoing an additional year of studies, oil industry pressure to find a way across British Columbia to give tar sands a port for export is now stronger than ever.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal has been on the table for many years now and has faced increasingly strong opposition in British Columbia, especially among First Nations with strong rights in terms of what happens on their lands. The Northern Gateway pipeline would stretch over 1,000 kilometres to connect the tar sands of Alberta with the Pacific coast of British Columbia. It would cross more than 785 rivers and streams, including many which are critical fish-bearing habitat including the headwaters of three of the continent’s most important watersheds—the Mackenzie, the Fraser, and the Skeena. The geology of this area is complex, and destructive landslides are common.

Once it reaches the coast, the tar sands would be transported by supertanker to refineries in Asia, California, or elsewhere. However, first the supertankers would traverse 185 kilometres of inner coastal waters, including the Douglas Channel, before reaching open ocean in the unpredictably dangerous Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance. There is a reason that large oil supertankers have not used these waters in the past: the route poses many navigational challenges for large vessels, even under ideal conditions.

A major spill from the Northern Gateway Pipeline could be catastrophic. On July 25, 2010, an Enbridge pipeline carrying tar sands diluted bitumen ruptured, spilling more than three million litres of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River watershed in Michigan. More than a year after the spill occurred, approximately 60 kilometres of water and sediment, and 80 hectares of wetlands, were still contaminated with tar sands crude. The Northern Gateway pipeline would cross significantly more remote areas; discovery and cleanup of a spill in these areas would be hampered by factors such as the remoteness, heavy winter snowpack, flooding, and potential avalanches and rockslides. 

With pressure mounting to find coastal outlets from which tar sands can be exported overseas, it is critical that the full risks of tar sands pipelines and associated oil supertanker traffic be well understood. Canadians and the people of British Columbia will need to make choices about whether oil industry interests rate higher than the Canadian interest in healthy communities, fisheries, rivers, and coastal ecosystems. So far the people of British Columbia are choosing their natural wealth and community health over acting conduit for tar sands oil.

You can take action to add your voice to the Northern Gateway pipeline debate here.