Let’s hope for a clear “no” from Harper and Clark on Northern Gateway

(Image credit: rblood via Flickr)

By Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations. This article was originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

A recent Bloomberg-Nanos poll shows a majority of British Columbians want Prime Minister Stephen Harper to either delay or kill the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

Their No. 1 concern is oil spills, and for good reason: no technology is capable of cleaning up more than 10 per cent of diluted bitumen from an ocean spill, much less in the treacherous waters of B.C.’s North Coast.

This should be a wakeup call for Premier Christy Clark. One of her five conditions for approving the construction of heavy oil pipelines and tanker projects in B.C. is “world-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems” to “manage and mitigate the risks and costs” of pipeline and oil tanker spills.

Pipeline companies and politicians like to use words such as “world-leading” and “world-class” at their press conferences to describe oil spill-response and tanker-safety announcements, but what do those words actually mean?

By its admission, the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation says containment and recovery of an oil spill at sea is nearly impossible, with a removal rate “at best only 10-15 per cent and often considerably less.” Is this “world-class?”

BP was able to cleanup about three per cent of the oil in the much calmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Is that “world-leading?”

Oil-spill cleanup technology has barely changed since the Exxon Valdez oil spill 25 years ago, and there is still oil on the beaches in Alaska that is just as toxic as if it was spilled only weeks ago.

As Harper’s government prepares to announce its decision on Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, it’s clear that a “world-class” oil spill recovery system doesn’t exist.

If no technology exists to clean up more than 10 per cent of an oil spill, does it really matter how quickly responders get to the spill site? We don’t think so, and that’s why the Coastal First Nations are standing firm on the oil tanker ban in our territories.

It’s also why whatever decision the federal government makes on the Northern Gateway project is irrelevant. From our perspective, the project is over, dead. It’s never going to receive the social license it needs from First Nations or British Columbians to move forward.

But we won’t be surprised if the federal government approves the project. Harper and former natural Rresources minister Joe Oliver have made it abundantly clear they wanted to see Northern Gateway go forward even before the joint review panel assessment began. To clear the way to become the final decision makers, they changed National Energy Board legislation so the joint review panel could only make a recommendation, and that recommendation, with its 209 conditions, can hardly be regarded as a ringing endorsement of the project.

The federal government must make its decision on Northern Gateway by June 17 and all eyes are now on Harper and his government, and Clark, to see how she reacts to whatever decision the federal government makes.

Will Clark some day stand beside Harper and tell us that B.C. has a “world-class” oil-spill cleanup recovery system in place? The logical answer is no. It’s inconceivable she believes a 10-per-cent recovery rate can be described as “world-class.” To do so would be a slap in the face of First Nations, whose traditional territories and marine resources would be forced to absorb and be polluted by the 90 per cent of oil that is never recovered. Therefore we fully expect her to honour her five conditions and to say “no” to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Project.

An approval of the project would be regarded as an act of betrayal by all First Nations and British Columbians, and it would mean First Nations and our allies would be forced to protect our rights and the interests of future generations through direct and legal action. It’s not our preferred route, but it’s one we’re fully prepared to take. In doing so we’d be standing for the health and safety of all British Columbians.

If politicians can’t muster the world-class leadership necessary to protect B.C.’s coastal waters and marine resources, we will.

Art Sterritt is the executive director of the Coastal First Nations