Monday, October 31, 2005

The Future of the Queen Charlotte Basin

This is one of the more pressing issues we will be covering on this blog. Enbridge Pipelines wants to build a pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to Kitimat on the B. C. coast. From there the oil would be shipped in supertankers to Asia and/or California. Only problem is, there's a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic in the Queen Charlotte Basin, i.e. off the coast from Kitimat. One of the fears is that if the tanker ban is lifted for Enbridge, then Alaskan tankers heading for the refineries of Puget Sound could perhaps take a detour through B. C. waters instead of following their current offshore route.

All of B. C.'s North Coast is characterised by extreme conditions, particularly in winter. Thus, if an oil spill were to occur anytime between October and March, responders would be hard-pressed to mount a credible cleanup operation, given the winds and waves that typically prevail at that time of year. This would be a shame, because the area is incredibly rich in terms of biodiversity, and relatively pristine. Scientists estimate that a major spill could have consequences that are catastrophic and irreversible.

There are other proposals for the marine region as well, including the Kitimat and Prince Rupert LNG projects, Encana's Kitimat condensate project, Terasen's TMX project, the Terasen/Pembina condensate project, as well as a big container port project for Prince Rupert. In fact, as of May 8, 2006, Encana had already begun shipping in condensate via tanker to Kitimat, for transshipment by rail to Alberta; no environmental assessment was demanded or required for this project, on the grounds that it did not require expansion of the Kitimat port facilities.

All these plans and projects are being hatched against the backdrop of a planning mechanism called PNCIMA, short for Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area, which treats the whole region as a LOMA, or Large Ocean Marine Area. Noble as the PNCIMA effort may be, it looks like a case of "too little too late!"

In short, a few years from now the entire Queen Charlotte Basin could turn into a beehive of marine shipping activity, with far-reaching consequences for the health of the marine ecosystem. The question we must ask ourselves is: are we ready for any of this? And, we haven't even broached the issue of offshore oil and gas development per se, which is currently under moratorium. Any one of these projects could have serious impacts for the marine environment, and collectively they could be dynamite. The cumulative effects of all these activities over the course of the next five to ten years could be devastating.

Stay tuned!