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A (Northern) Gateway to where?

Beware “Mr. Accident,” who appears in Haida children's stories when people are tired and not paying attention

January 15, 2012

VANCOUVER, BC, Jan. 15, 2012/ Troy Media/ - The National Energy Board hearings into the proposed $5.5B Gateway pipeline project take me back to my early career days in the Canadian oil patch.

From 1979 to 1986 I worked for the Northern Pipeline Agency, Petro-Canada (remember when Canada had its own national oil company), and the Polar Gas Project, which was the second attempt at building the Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline.

My earnest efforts notwithstanding, this project still languishes some 35 years after the publication of Thomas Berger’s Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: the Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (1977).

Unforgiving work

During the early part of my tenure with Petro-Canada I also coordinated the community information sessions on BC’s Northwest Coast to explain the company’s desire to establish an offshore drilling program in the waters ringing Haida Gwaii. That unforgiving work took a small band of us several months as we tried to hold public meetings in all of the regional First Nations communities, and the larger centres like Terrace and Prince Rupert.

Looking back over this part of my career, I realize that not a single project went ahead, but a tremendous amount of effort went into talking with community organizations about the pros and cons of oil and gas development. The pros were always obvious: direct, indirect and induced employment ranging from working in the oil patch, to providing a wide range of local contract support, to boosting retail and service sales in local communities. Once operational, the pipeline business and producing offshore fields required dramatically fewer workers, but the job tenure for those who liked the work could extend out for 30 years.

Operations and maintenance jobs also included a hefty investment in oil spill contingency planning. Petro-Canada was planning on significant investments in oil spill containment booms, drums of chemical dispersants to be sprayed from a fleet of planes onto ocean borne oil slicks, barge-mounted ‘slick-lickers’ to suck up oil spills, and even stockpiled bales of hay to be used for berms in estuaries and other environmentally sensitive areas should a blow-out or spill occur. There was a serious expenditure of money just planning for these activities before any hearings were to occur. As it turned out, they didn’t.

A combination of low oil prices, better opportunities elsewhere and strong local opposition scuttled the BC offshore drilling idea, and the ‘Berger Report’ put the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Project to bed for a decade while the Dene settled their land claims and put in place their own local government institutions to cope with northern development projects conceptualized and designed in the south.

Looking back, I was glad the BC offshore play never happened, because at the local information sessions we heard too many seasoned fishing boat skippers talk about 80 foot waves, high tidal energy, howling southeasters in Hecate Strait, and the growing fragility of the marine ecosystem.

I also heard scores of First Nations’ speakers decry putting their homelands and food chains at risk for the sake of oil. I also remember having a few beers with technical members of the company’s public information team. Privately, especially after a raucous community meeting, they would confide to me that high wave and wind action would hamper and disrupt oil spill boom placement and slick-licker deployment, and a major blowout or spill near a tidal estuary would likely be very difficult to contain.

Simply put, our expert community information team was far from certain that their high-tech solutions would work in a place like Hecate Strait in a howling southeaster.

The disillusionment this created for me was profound. In 1986 I left the oil patch and became executive director and professor at a university research institute that helped circumpolar First Nations communities build capacity to do their own research.

When I look at the Gateway project today, with the benefit of my early career, I am still not certain that oil transport down coastal inlets and through the maze of offshore islands is a fail- safe enterprise. I appreciate that new navigational technology, local pilots and double hulls will be brought to bear, and I respect the engineering efforts to do things the right way. Arrayed against these human efforts, however, is the awesome power of the southeast wind, high tidal energy, and a character the Haida refer to in children’s stories as ‘Mr. Accident.’ He notably comes out and causes havoc when people are tired and not paying close attention to even normal tasks. Mr. Accident no doubt lurks in Douglas Channel from time to time.

Time to slow down

While the Gateway media circus is currently focusing on First Nations’ concerns about pipeline integrity and tanker safety, and the National Energy Board hearings are focusing on the technical and safety aspects of the project, my own mind is focused on the question of why there is a need for such a rapid pace of development in the tar sands of northern Alberta?

Several issues confront us: we are driving up construction and environmental costs by racing to develop as much of the resource as quickly as possible; we are placing the downstream Mackenzie basin water supplies at risk as a result; we are hindering the pace of land and vegetation reclamation as a result; and we are further tying the emerging Canadian workforce to tar sands development as a result.

We are doing so without a rational examination of future Canadian workforce options, or a critical examination of the costs of an implicit national economic strategy that is tied to total production and global incineration of a natural resource that is causing climate change.

Maybe before we go through this Gateway, we should ask ourselves a few questions about our desired future.

Mike Robinson is CEO Bill Reid Trust and President, Bill Reid Foundation.

This column is FREE to use on your websites or in your publications. However, Troy Media, with a link to its web site, MUST be credited.

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