Kitimat, British Columbia doesn’t get national news coverage very often. The coastal town, planned and crafted by the aluminum smelting company then called Alcan, is quite literally at the end of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. It’s the place where that black bear walked into a Subway restaurant in a video shown nationwide on comedy programs. Recently, a much more serious issue has thrust the smelter town of 8,000 or so into the spotlight.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway project is picking up on an element of the planned town’s infrastructure: Kitimat has a port. To the west of Kitimat is the Douglas Channel, an inlet chock-full of water, wildlife, and important benefits to the town, including a power station used to generate electricity needed to power the smelter—to which the town owes its very existence. Also among those benefits is the shipping—alumina in, aluminum out—required by the smelter in order for it to operate. Enbridge has targeted Kitimat’s port as the ending point of the pipeline that they want to use to move crude oil from the Alberta oil sands onto super tankers, and out into the global market.
With federal, provincial, and local incentives and consequences all accounted for, great debate and division has arisen amongst those for and against the implementation of this pipeline. But how did we get to this point? What are the pressures facing Kitimat, B.C., and Canada both environmentally and economically, and will Enbridge’s proposal relieve those pressures?
Two pipelines, approximately 1,150 kilometers long, will be built from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat; one carrying approximately 525,000 barrels of crude oil to the port per day, and the other carrying 150,000 barrels of condensate to Alberta per day, required to dilute the oil from the sands so that it can be sent via pipeline in the first place. About 220 or so oil tankers, including large super tankers, would make the trip to and from wherever the oil is sent per year.
The project is currently in the midst of a review that is gaining feedback from various communities in B.C., seeing whether or not the Northern Gateway project is in the public interest.
Greasing the wheels
There are strong economic forces driving Enbridge’s proposal. There’s the creation of jobs both short- and long-term that matter, especially to Kitimat: a town facing decline for many years after two major job centres, the Eurocan pulp and paper mill and the Methanex methanol plant, closed their doors. There’s also the national issue of making Canadian oil sell more competitively, and relying less on the United States as a partner.
Enbridge outlines the numbers pretty clearly. During the construction of this pipeline, approximately 3,000 jobs would be created, with that number petering out to 560 long-term. The term “person-years” is used far more often on their website, as this tends to be a bigger number. One of the goals laid out by Enbridge is to engage with the communities involved with the project and create local opportunities and jobs. Kitimat fits right in the middle of it, and one of the biggest building projects would be Kitimat’s marine terminal.
However, Alcan—now Rio Tinto Alcan—initiated a plant modernization of the Kitimat smelter, a task that requires many hands in the construction phase. While any community would benefit from more jobs being created in it, Kitimat already has a surplus of construction jobs, and the long-term jobs are few in comparison, so the pipeline itself doesn’t do too much to support a town that already sinks or swims with its smelter.
What may be more important to note is that the United States currently gets 97% of Canada’s exports of crude oil, which does not do particularly great things for getting a competitive market price for one’s product. Indeed, there is an issue with oversupply that is hurting the price of Candian crude oil. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently made a trip out to China, and if he can successfully push the Northern Gateway pipeline into play and have a port to access the Pacific Rim countries, suddenly the market prices could go up. Harper has all but endorsed the project himself. Enbridge itself claims that nearly $3 a barrel would be added to the price of crude oil.
Not everyone is convinced that’s a good thing, though. According to a study done by economist Robyn Allan, former President and CEO of ICBC, the projected net benefit of $270 billion to the Canadian economy as estimated by Enbridge doesn’t account for enough factors and the pipeline could cause the reverse effect, “an oil price shock to the economy.” Allan identifies Northern Gateway as a potential inflationary threat, as oil prices go up, so will the costs elsewhere.
An Oily Smear
While the pipeline does have its supporters, what’s come out of Kitimat is far more concern than excitement. In particular, Enbridge is being questioned over the environmental risks and feasibility of driving oil super tankers through the Douglas Channel. Dieter Wagner, a resident of Kitimat for 47 years, represents “Douglas Channel Watch”, a group united for the cause of protecting the inlet from the potential environmental dangers of tanker traffic that the pipeline would cause.
“The passages are not fit for these super tankers,” said Wagner, “They are difficult to navigate, with the waves and the weather. Both passages out of the channel are not good for use all year long.”
Enbridge has responded to concerns raised about tanker safety by ensuring that it will employ state of the art technology and environmental safety measures to eliminate as much of the risk as possible. In particular, double-hulled super tankers and escort tugboats for them were two
Wagner took issue with the claim that there will be tugboats, saying that “I have read the regulations and nowhere within the regulations does it say that they have to have tugboats for a shipping project such as this one.” What Douglas Channel Watch and other groups are strongly pushing is the fact that no one can guarantee that a mistake will never, ever happen, and the consequences for the Douglas Channel, if there’s an oil spill, would be severely damaging, basically wiping out the habitats for fish and wildlife for generations. They reference the Exxon Valdez incident, in which a tanker spilled—depending on whom you ask—between 260,000 to well over 700,000 barrels of oil into the water at Prince William Sound, Alaska. The effects of that tanker spill are still present today, despite billions of dollars in relief efforts by Exxon, not to mention other organizations. While Enbridge’s tankers would no doubt be state of the art, the risk is undeniable that a spill could happen there.
Douglas Channel notwithstanding, there is also the issue of the pipeline itself and the rivers and other wildlife habitat that it crosses. Enbridge insists that oil companies have learned from spills and other accidents, and have marched on in environmental safety issues, but when evaluating any corporation or employee to do a job, one must consider the past. In May 2010, the Polaris Institute documented 804 spills occurring on Enbridge pipelines from 1999 to 2010, dumping 169,000 barrels of hydrocarbons into the environment. Enbridge currently manages 24,600 km of crude oil pipeline in total, moving over 2 million barrels per day.
Wagner pointed out that if a pipeline were to leak the crude oil into the Kitimat River, for example, the salmon and steelhead fish habitat would be destroyed. “The oil would seep into the ground, and the only way to get it out after that is to dredge the river, and if you do that, the breeding grounds and habitat of five different kinds of salmon, and the steelhead, they are gone.” A crude oil spill would leave a lasting smear environmentally and, it turns out, economically, on some of the small communities Enbridge is trying to help.
“The money we make from tourism, from fishing and other activities related to the Douglas Channel would be lost if there was a spill,” Wagner explained. “That loss would make us worse off, even with the jobs Enbridge would generate for us.”
Forging an Alliance
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Enbridge in the pipeline debate is trying to secure support from the different bands of the First Nations. Enbridge is offering financial incentives, but concern remains over the environment and what a spill could do to the First Nations’ lands.
Enbridge, as mentioned, has taken it upon themselves to incorporate the First Nations into their economic pitch. They’re offering a ten percent share of the $5.5 billion project, and promise that Aboriginals will make up at least 15% of the workers hired on to do the jobs generated by the project. The money is definitely there, but thus far there’s been less support than Enbridge would like to see.
Environmental concerns come to the fore once again, and many First Nations bands are speaking out in opposition of Northern Gateway. However, in an article by the Financial Post, Ellis Ross, Chief of the Haisla First Nation which resides in the Kitimaat Village, was critical
“They can’t guarantee they are not going to spill oil and they are not going to guarantee they can pick it up,” said Ross. “Of course these people in Ottawa, Alberta, Saskatchewan, [they] are willing to take the risk because they don’t live here.”
It all comes back to this idea of risk versus reward. Kitimat hasn’t seen the brightest days over the last decade, and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project could generate an economic stimulus that will, if nothing else, give the community a small shot in the arm as far as short-term employment goes. Long term, every Canadian is banking on Enbridge’s plan for more competitive oil prices.
The question that opponents of the pipeline are raising during the public hearings is loud and clear. Is the risk of the devastation of the environment in Kitimat, or any part of the pipeline route’s communities, worth the economic incentives that are being promised? The answer could decide the fate of this controversial project.