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A view of Douglas Channel near Kitimat, B.C. About 200 tankers a year would sail up the sound to access oil from the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Harry Swain is a former federal deputy minister of Industry Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada

Enbridge's proposed pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the sea would open Asian markets for Canadian oil that up till now has been captive to the United States, and it would do so with some probabilities of environmental damage and some certainty of insult to aboriginal land titles. All three arguments have been advanced in the media by their proponents and will soon be exposed in public hearings. But one argument has been rather muted so far.

On the environmental side, the media coverage has been almost entirely about the risks of the pipeline itself. Leaks or bursts could seriously damage any of the 600-odd streams it must cross, many of which are key parts of salmon ecosystems. But what about the saltwater side of this transport system?

Enbridge chose Kitimat as its port. This means some 200 tankers a year would cross the shallow and stormy waters of Hecate Sound, duck behind Banks Island, follow the narrow Principe Channel for 120 km, turn east through Otter Channel, cross the track of many Alaska cruise ships at the south end of Granville Channel, and ascend Douglas Channel, another narrow fiord, a further 100 km to Kitimat. Altogether, this is about 300 km of tricky navigation in waters distinguished by fog, storms, and quite amazing tidal currents. Whole volumes have been written about shipwrecks on the B.C. coast, end even with today's modern navigation systems, ships run aground and sink.

Something for the hearings to consider is what minimum investments would be required by the federal government -- a strong proponent of the pipeline -- to reduce navigational risks to an acceptable minimum. At the least these would include a whole new regulatory scheme, as we have never seen a project of this sort before. Ships and their crews would have to be certified to high standards, which have not yet been set for this environment. The pilotage system would have to be expanded, with new stations at Kitimat and perhaps Banks Island, and stout new boats to service the tankers. (The new pilot boat at Victoria cost $4.5-million, which at least made local yachtsmen fell they weren't the most extravagant folks afloat.) There would have to be new Coast Guard ships to supervise the transits, and to respond to emergencies. Novel technologies for containing spills and cleaning up in the aftermath would have to be devised and built for the proposed scale of operations in these cold northern waters. New Coast Guard doctrine would need to be prepared, and hundreds of new sailors hired and trained. At least there is time -- five to seven years -- to do this before pipeline operations begin, but only if the feds start now. The cost? Who knows, but $500-million would be a good starting point.

No preparations for all this are yet visible. If provision is not made in February's budget, the sincerity of Ottawa's support for Alberta's pipeline should be questioned.

There is an alternative to the perilous journey to Kitimat, and that is the established industrial port at Prince Rupert. The pipeline would be about 200 km longer, but the sea journey would be comparably shorter. The western end of the route would travel down the Skeena valley, where existing road and rail facilities would lower the costs of construction. Since Enbridge swears its pipeline will be safe, there would presumably be little threat to the huge Skeena salmon run. Most importantly, Prince Rupert gives fairly directly onto Dixon Entrance and the great world ocean, which would considerably lessen the probability of a tanker disaster. New investment by the Coast Guard and the Pilotage Authority would be a lot less, though not zero.

As you follow the unfolding controversy, ask yourself why Enbridge chose the less safe route, and whether we as taxpayers have to pay the premium for the risks the company has created.