“Northern Gateway” – a gateway to what?
There is always a balance to be struck between driving “development” and protecting the “environment.” Despite the present government’s claim that their new legislation will provide both increased development and protection of the environment, it is obvious that their legislative initiatives are moving Canada toward more development and less environmental regulation & assessment. Whether that is good or not is a political question, of course, but here are some of the particulars.
The Harper Conservative majority government has “streamlined” the environmental assessment process to speed up development, by removing 3,000 projects from review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). Of course, nationwide, the big one that is still in there is the Enbridge “Northern Gateway” pipeline to carry tar sands crude from Alberta to Kitimat, BC, which this Alberta-based government wants very badly.
What is at stake environmentally is discussed in an Oct 7th Toronto Star article titled ‘Why Northern Gateway shouldn’t go near Great Bear Rainforest,’ by John Honderich, Chair of the Toronto Star‘s Board of Directors. It points out that recent legislation weakening the federal government’s obligation to do environmental protection is more than anything else aimed at preventing environmentalists, native groups, and the BC provincial government from blocking or delaying the construction of this pipeline which is intended to carry dirty tar sands oil from Alberta to Kitimat, BC to go onto oil tankers bound for the Asian market. The article notes that “the fierce opposition of the Coastal First Nations to the project is well known” and their rights to the land have never been ceded. The tankers departing from Kitimat would pass through dangerous waters: first the 2-3 km wide 70 km long Douglas Channel and then around 27 km long Gil Island with the channel narrowing by half. It was at the northern tip of Gil Island where in 2006 the BC Ferry Queen of the North missed a turn, ran onto the rocks, and sank. It is true that cargo vessels, e.g. ore carriers, have been carrying commercial cargo along this route for decades, but modern supertankers have never done so, and they are six to seven times as long as a typical ore carrier and need at least half a kilometre to alter course. Furthermore, a load of bauxite sinking to the bottom of the channel is much less of an environmental threat than “a supertanker disgorging millions of litres of molasses-like bitumen.” This area is the world’s second largest temperate rainforest, called the Great Bear Rainforest because of the spectacular population of black, grizzly, and kermode bears that live off the abundant salmon runs. By comparison, tankers loading at Valdez, Alaska and going out through Prince William Sound have it easy and safe: the exit from Valdez Arm and past Bligh Reef (where the Exxon Valdez went aground) into open Prince William Sound is about 30 km, and the tankers are always escorted by tugs. Two tugs escort each laden tanker through Prince William Sound and remain at Hinchinbrook Entrance until the vessel is twenty-seven kilometres out to sea. Will tugs escort tankers from Kitimat to the open sea? The nearest Coast Guard is in Prince Rupert, 135 km northwest of Gil Island.
There has been an informal moratorium on all oil tanker traffic off the coast of BC since 1972, renewed by the House of Commons in 2010 after the Harper government said there was no official moratorium. As for the Northern Gateway pipeline, all we have been told is that Enbridge, the pipeline’s owner, says it has a foolproof plan to manage all this. The area is one of the richest and most productive ecosystems on the planet, all based on the salmon. It is critical habitat for seventeen types of marine mammals, including the endangered blue, fin, right, sei and orca whales. Rivers critical for sixty percent of BC’s multi-million-dollar salmon catch run through the region.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 2012 applies to areas of federal jurisdiction: i) fish and fish habitat; ii) other aquatic species at risk; iii) migratory birds; iv) federal lands; v) effects that cross provincial or international boundaries; vi) effects that impact on Aboriginal peoples, such as their use of lands and resources for traditional purposes, and vii) changes to the environment that are directly linked to or necessarily incidental to any federal decisions about a project. Certainly there is federal jurisdiction re. the Northern Gateway pipeline in one or more of these areas, but “streamlining the process” is the key issue.
This government wants to end what it sees as past use of the environmental impact review process to hold up approval of development projects indefinitely. The Mackenzie Valley pipeline is an example they always bring up. Proposed in 1973, Thomas Berger was selected to head the inquiry in 1974. The final round of public hearings was in Inuvik NWT in April, 2010, and the project was approved by regulators in December, 2010. From a January, 2011 CBC News Business column, “Imperial Oil has until December 31, 2013, to make a final decision on whether to proceed with the pipeline at all, although it has asked the National Energy Board for three more years to decide. Should the company decide by 2013 to go ahead, construction would start in 2014 and production would start in 2018.” From 1974 to the regulatory decision in 2010 took thirty-eight years. Under the new regulations, the screening process has to begin within forty-five days and after that strict timelines for completion apply. There is a requirement to complete the actual assessment within 365 days, or twenty-four months if referred to a review panel, though these times can be extended up to three months by the Minister, or longer by order of Cabinet.
Public participation has been reduced, and is limited to any “interested party.” This includes those determined by the relevant authority to be “directly affected” by the project or to have relevant information or expertise. The rhetoric on this issue has been frightening, preventing any real discussion of what the development versus environment balance should be. According to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, environmental and other “radical groups” are trying to block trade and undermine Canada’s economy. “Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.” He says the groups “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda,” stack the hearings with people to delay or kill “good projects,” attract “jet-setting” celebrities and use funding from “foreign special interest groups.” To this, David Suzuki responded mildly: “Environmentalists want to ‘live within our means,’ ‘save some for tomorrow,’ think about the ‘legacy we leave for our children.’ [This] strikes me as a pretty conservative approach.”
According to CBC News April 17, 2012, Environmental groups and opposition parties insist that the government is merely giving big energy companies carte blanche by dismantling the checks and balances that protect the environment. “After slashing funding to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, they’re now saddling it with the obligation to do more complex reviews, faster, with fewer resources,” said NDP environment critic Megan Leslie. Green Party Leader and MP Elizabeth May said the moves go farther than what industry stakeholders were asking for: “This kind of savaging of the environmental assessment process is more about speeding the development even more than the industry needs,” May told CBC News Network.
Presumably provinces can still do their own reviews (environment and energy are provincial jurisdiction) and if BC did one on the Northern Gateway and the decision was negative, it’s hard to see how the federal government could push it through. In any case BC’s decision-making structure under its Environmental Assessment Act (and that of all provinces under their respective environmental assessment legislation) may take on increased prominence given the ability to exempt projects from the current Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 by substituting the federal environmental assessment process with a provincial one. If some aboriginal groups hold to a negative stance, and the BC government (perhaps a new NDP government) objects as well, it is not likely that the project will go forward, no matter how much the Harper government wants it to.
This year two “omnibus bills” were pushed through without debate, including a) a re-write of the Fisheries Act which has always been used to protect fish habitat (fresh waters with any fish in them – now only listed fish species are covered – popular sport fish and commercial fish); and b) the Boundary Waters Act removing federal environmental protection from all but explicitly named waters. Fortunately the lower Great Lakes have to be covered, so Lake Ontario and its bays are still protected. Isn’t it odd that the environmental sentiments of the Americans may now protect the Canadian environment, where it used to be American Great Lakes environmentalists who gave thanks to the Canadians for their environmentalism.
During this year there has been a gutting of Environment Canada and Fisheries & Oceans Canada. Scientists whose research might conclude environmental damage have been fired. (Not “de-funded” because some of them are internationally renowned and could attract funding, and the Harper government doesn’t want that.) Government scientists are now followed around at international conferences by “minders” who make sure they don’t speak out of turn. Submitted papers that don’t follow the industry line are excluded. I experienced that personally – a submitted paper critical of massive dispersants use, as happened in the Gulf of Mexico, was rejected for a regular session of an Environment Canada conference in Vancouver, as too political and not really a technical paper. However, many papers promoting the use of dispersants were presented by industry and government attendees. The UK newspaper The Guardian published an article by their US environment correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg about a revolt by Canada’s leading scientists against sweeping cuts to government research labs and the government’s pro-industry policies, saying that Harper is accused of pushing through a slew of policies weakening or abolishing environmental protections – with an aim of expanding development of natural resources such as the Alberta tar sands. (N.B.: This is not Canadian partisan opinion.)
It is a difficult time to be an environmental scientist in Canada. By that I mean a real one who has taught undergraduate and graduate students, researched and published, and supervised the research of others for half a century. I do not mean to denigrate environmental advocacy, because I do that too, especially after taking early retirement in 1999. I now do various things of that kind, including working with a group helping to preserve Lake Ontario’s Presqu’ile Bay; working with an NGO that monitors oil tanker traffic in Prince William Sound, Alaska; guiding locals and visitors around a mangrove wetland reserve in Singapore; and running environmental studies methods workshops for students and professionals in Canada and overseas (sixteen at last count). The knowledge and judgment of “environmentalists” is uneven, but it is bound to be because it grades from the environmentally concerned citizen (including hunters, fishers, campers, boaters, and aboriginals) to the very knowledgeable amateur scientist. I remember an old Icelandic fisherman on Lake Winnipeg who could pick up a whitefish and tell you what spawning stock it was from, thereby amazing a doctoral student who was developing a statistical method for determining that.
There are other talents besides academic training in environmental sciences. For example, David Suzuki is an excellent popularizer of environmental issues, even though his academic background was mostly in a now obsolete area of genetics. Some older visitors to the wetland reserve in Singapore know how all the plants were used: for food, as a poison for fishing, for musical instruments, for construction, for medicine. We can all learn environmental science basics, and we all should. Regardless of what we do for a living, we all live in an environment and ought to be committed to sustaining it and keeping it livable. »
[The Oct 7th Toronto Star article is at : www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1267961—why-northern-gateway-shouldn-t-go-near-great-bear-rainforest ]From issue #63