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Expired · 20th August 2010
Ray Grigg
The decision by Enbridge to ask for a review from Canada's National Energy Board for a proposed 1,172 km Northern Gateway pipeline from Edmonton to the port of Kitimat seems badly timed given the devastation resulting from the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Enbridge's $5.5 billion project is not just a pipeline that will move 550,000 barrels of Alberta's tar sands crude per day to Kitimat. It will also invite about two hundred supertankers per year to ply the hazardous waters of BC's pristine coast. Given the fiasco in the Gulf, the opportunity to win public support for transporting oil by pipeline and ship couldn't be worse.

But it will get worse. The damage presently occurring in the Gulf is just the initial trauma of the disaster, merely the first shock of a protracted catastrophe. The real damage is stewing deep in the ocean where millions of barrels of crude will be working their environmental havoc and washing ashore to haunt the Gulf Coast for decades. And the more visceral effects, the human tragedies, are just being registered as traditional ways of life along the Gulf are being wrecked by the oil. This is why BP has been doing its best to keep journalists and photographers away from the affected sites. The long and festering wounds of this blowout are going to be more agonizingly painful as time passes. Better that Enbridge apply for the Northern Gateway review now, before the public begins to register the real costs of moving oil around the planet.

Then, on July 26, as the Gulf environmental mess was festering, along came another disaster, this one courtesy of Enbridge itself. In southwest Michigan, a 90 cm diameter pipe carrying crude ruptured. For some unknown reason – the inexplicable always accompanies disasters of this ilk – the pump alarms and automatic shut-off valves did not activate so the pipe merrily spilled nearly 4 million litres of crude into the nearby Kalamazoo River. The tar-like goo has contaminated at least 55 km of the river, sticking to the bottom, coating the shoreline, attaching to lily pads, poisoning fish and birds, plus killing billions of the tiny creatures that form the foundation of living systems. The concoction of lighter oils, spreading its sheen of toxins down the river, may be stopped before reaching Lake Michigan, little consolation to the local ecology and the many communities that use the river as their primary source of drinking water. After years of effort to reclaim the river from flagrant maltreatment by industry, this is a sorry blow to all those who worked so hard to bring this river back to life.

But leaks from pipelines are not exceptional; they are common. North Dakota shared a similar fate in January 2010, when 475,000 litres of oil leaked from another Enbridge pipeline. And, in 2007, over 650,000 litres of Enbridge-transported crude tainted the water table in northern Wisconsin. Indeed, in 2008 alone, 80 spills occurred from Enbridge pipelines, about 3 barrels per million moved.

The risk of spills increases as pipelines age. In addition to breaks caused by landslides, earthquakes and other natural disturbances, pipelines rust and corrode. A few months before the huge release of crude into the Kalamazoo River, Enbridge had been warned about a potential failure in this pipeline. But repairs are costly. And in an list of possible faults, which one deserves priority? The 1,172 km of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline will be crossing 773 of BC's creeks, streams and rivers, each a candidate for a predictable yet inexplicable spill. Our northern watercourses will inevitably suffer the same oily future as other places where pipelines are built.

As for the purpose of this pipeline, it's to get Alberta's oil to an energy-hungry Asian market. China has already invested heavily in the tar sands and expects to "repatriate" its oil. With pipelines venting both south and west – but not east where Ontario and Quebec still import oil from the international market – the oil industry can pit its competing consumers in Asia and America against each other to leverage a $2 to $3 per barrel premium for its product. A more principled Canadian position would be to discourage the consumption of oil, not to accommodate its use. So, for the strategic economic advantage of international investors, for the accelerated depletion of a non renewable resource needed in Canada, and for the accommodation of a destructive addiction to oil, BC gets to risk its northern watersheds and its sublime coast to inevitable spills.

Enbridge is trying to counter this risk with advertised assurances of employment, safety and prosperity. But the "economic growth" promised for Northern BC is temporary – most jobs will disappear once the pipeline is built. And the improved navigation systems for all marine traffic, touted as one of the benefits of developing Kitimat as a busy international oil port, will be necessary because the low risk from present traffic will become high risk with the mass arrival of supertankers. With capacities of 2 million barrels of oil, some will be nearly double the size of the ill-fated Exxon Valdez. As a sobering perspective on the frequency and extent of tanker caused marine disasters, this devastating 1989 spill in Alaska was only the 54th largest.

Enbridge's logo for its Northern Gateway Project is a pair of green, interlocking leaves, the space between them forming the letter "N". The symbolism is a classic example of misleading assurances, deceptively used to give the impression that with Enbridge all will be beautiful, vibrant, natural and safe, while the reality is actually dark, brooding, unnatural and ominous. The citizens of BC and Canada, together with their governments, should be reminded that the "N" of this ill-conceived project should stand for "NO".