Sunday, November 06, 2005

Gateway to Nowhere?

The government has come out with its much-ballyhooed Pacific Gateway strategy, intended to open up Canadian markets to Asia. Meanwhile, Enbridge has unveiled plans for its own Gateway project, which involves a pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to Kitimat, and tanker traffic from there to points beyond. The only problem is, there is a thirty-three year old moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic in the Queen Charlotte Basin, and so far Cabinet has not lifted the ban. Moreover, the government of the day is about to fall

Enbridge, the proponent of Gateway, says it has filed a preliminary project information package with the various regulatory authorities, such as CEAA, the NEB and TERMPOL. The company plans to submit a formal application by around the end of July, 2006, assuming it lines up enough customers for the oil. It may decide not to go ahead with the project for the time being, however, since markets to the central and southern US look more promising at the moment. In any case, for Gateway to go ahead, the tanker ban would have to be lifted by Ottawa for the project to even be considered for approval. Enbridge has been made aware of the tanker ban by an environmental activist and tanker spill expert, but seems intent on pushing forward anyway, in an effort no doubt to test the waters and see how firm support is for the decades-old moratorium. This matter could easily end up being settled in court.

The ban in question was established in the early seventies, when the fear was that the Americans wanted to send Alaskan oil in tankers down the BC coast. Canada eventually got the tanker companies to agree to keep their boats well clear of the Queen Charlottes and most of Vancouver Island. The Canadian tanker ban is just a matter of policy; it does not have any real basis in law, such as, for example, by virtue of an Order-in-Council. Powerful firms such as Enbridge and Terasen, who have a competing proposal, want to ship the 'devil's excrement' out to Asia and/or California and are meeting little if any resistance from Ottawa. With a shipping-friendly ( remember Canada Steamship Lines, anybody? ) Prime Minister in office, can one really expect this government to get up on its hind legs and cite an obscure ban that not one in a hundred marine people know about, let alone the general public?

If they know anything about a crude oil tanker moratorium, folks tend to cite the West Coast Tanker Exclusion Zone (WCTEZ), which is the voluntary agreement that forms the basis for keeping the Alaskan fleet well away. Few are aware of the more general ban, which keeps all crude oil shipments, be they Canadian or foreign flag, out of the Queen Charlotte Basin. But, if the truth be known, most people don't even know about the WCTEZ; all they can recall is the moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration and production. Ironically, that thirty-three year old ban was instituted as a sort of after-thought, after the tanker ban was conceived, on the theory that if we were going to exclude crude oil tankers from the basin, then we had better be consistent and not let oil drilling occur either.

This author has waged a virtual solo effort for years now to keep the tanker ban in place; even the ban's original champion, outgoing MP David Anderson from Victoria, seems to have lost interest. This author thought his lonely campaign had paid off when the 2004 Royal Society expert panel report concluded that the ban in question should be maintained, for the time being at least. Apparently, though, this recommendation was lost on everyone else, including the general public, the federal government, the pipeline proponents and our pussycat fifth estate.

In short, if, as it appears, the tanker moratorium may bite the dust, at the relatively young age of thirty-three, particularly if a Conservative, western-oriented, business-friendly ("How high do you want me to jump?") government is formed at the time of the next election, expected early in the new year. Ultimately, though, if the ban is scrapped, the reason would seem to be that not enough people cared. Was it Martin Luther King who said: "The real problem in this world is not the evil people; it's all those good people out there who do nothing"? A fitting epitaph on the headstone of the moratorium, perhaps.

So, if Enbridge gets its way, within about five years, perhaps just in time for the 2010 Whistler Winter Olympics, we could see six or seven 320,000 DWT VLCCs exiting Hecate Strait each month, each with a cargo of 2.3 million barrels of crude oil on board. As the old Chinese proverb says: "Be careful what you wish for!"