Liberal and New Democratic MPs have joined with West Coast native groups in an attempt to block an export pipeline carrying oil-sands crude, urging the Conservative government to pass a ban on super-tanker traffic along northern British Columbia's coast.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister released Tuesday, 15 opposition politicians said proposed crude traffic through Canadian waters in the northern Pacific would pose "unacceptable economic, navigational and environmental risks." And they urged Stephen Harper to use legislation to ban such traffic.
"No prime minister of Canada before you has allowed bulk crude oil tankers to transit the abundant coastal waters of Canada's Pacific north coast; we urge you to refrain from being the first," the six Liberals and nine New Democrats wrote. The opposition included a signature line for 22 Conservative MPs from B.C., who were contacted but did not sign the letter.
Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. has proposed a 1,100-kilometre pipeline that would carry roughly 500,000 barrels per day of oil-sands bitumen to Kitimat, B.C., and then be loaded onto tankers for export to Asia. Enbridge is now before the National Energy Board, which is holding hearings on the environmental and social impacts of the project.
In a Parliament Hill news conference on Tuesday, MPs from both parties were joined by representatives of West Coast native organization, as well as tourist and fisheries organizations.
There has been a de facto moratorium on tanker traffic in the region of the Queen Charlotte Sound, Hecate Straight and Douglas Channel, but there is no written confirmation of that policy. Native groups and environmentalists worry the Harper government is prepared to allow shipping in order to open new Asian markets for oil sands producers.
"Our nations have declared a ban on oil tankers through our waters because a spill would kill our livelihoods and wipe out our culture," said Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, which represents nine communities along the coast. Mr. Sterritt said the first nations have invested $300-million in recent years to develop sustainable fishing and harvesting industries, and that a tanker spill would do irreparable economic damage.
"No good can come from the Enbridge project," he said.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen said Canadians have seen the damage wrought by the Exxon Valdez on the Alaska coastal waters, and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and do not want a repeat along the B.C. coast. He said the Enbridge project would require the transit of some 250 super tanker a year through some of the "roughest water in the world."
There is a NDP private member's bill that would ban super-tanker traffic but that is not expected to be voted on in the foreseeable future.
Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh said the Conservative government have ducked the issue of a tanker ban, and is instead relying on the National Energy Board to review the environmental impact of the Enbridge pipeline proposal. But he said Mr. Harper has made it clear he supports the oil industry in its desire to expand Alberta's oil sands and to find new markets for their product.
"They are hell bent," Mr. Dosanjh said. "If they could lift the ban tomorrow politically, they would do it."
In a speech in Calgary on Tuesday, Enbridge chief executive Pat Daniel said the pipeline project is essential if Canada is to broaden its customer base for energy beyond the United States and take full advantage of its economic opportunities.
"In an era of global trade diversification, and at a time when the world demand for energy is rising very significantly, ignoring Canada's west coast energy bottleneck is the equivalent of announcing that we're not interested in playing on the world stage," Mr. Daniel said.
"I don't think that's in Canada's best interests at all. And it will take a long time, if it's even possible, to catch up if we come to the game too late."
Mr. Daniel said there are legitimate concerns about tanker safety off the West Coast, but insisted the company is addressing those issues. He said the tankers will all be modern, double-hulled vessels; will require local pilots to navigate through the channel to Kitimat; will be escorted by tugs through coastal routes, and will be guided by enhanced navigational equipment, including radar.
He acknowledged, however, that he can't guarantee there will be no spills.