Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Battle brewing over oil-tanker traffic

An odd public debate has broken out over the issue of oil and gas tankers sailing through B.C.'s coastal waters.
The topic isn't that strange. You can expect conflict over any activity, from tanker traffic to offshore oil and gas development, which involves potential risk to the coast.
What's weird is that this debate isn't about the principle. It's about whether tanker traffic is currently banned by the federal government.
It's not, says Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn, MP for a riding that includes a Victoria suburb and some of the Gulf Islands.
"There actually is no moratorium for traffic coming into the West Coast," he says. The Conservative government will only acknowledge an "a voluntary exclusion zone" that applies to U.S. tankers carrying Alaska oil to Washington State. The American companies have been willing to stay out of B.C. waters, but there's nothing to say they couldn't start sailing through tomorrow, according to Lunn.
David Anderson disagrees. He made his political mark by championing the tanker issue and oversaw the moratorium as environment minister for the federal Liberals. He says the tanker ban has been in place since 1972.
NDP MPs and MLAs have taken the same position; so have most environmental groups.
Most of the evidence appears to be on their side, although there is no cabinet order or legislation setting out the ban.
When the federal Natural Resources Department commissioned a study on offshore oil and gas in 2003, the terms of reference acknowledged the ban.
"In 1972, the Government of Canada imposed a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic through Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound due to concerns over the potential environmental impacts. The moratorium subsequently extended to include oil and gas activities."
It seems clear. And people who say the ban exists note that many federal government documents acknowledge the ban and none - prior to the Conservatives being elected - claim it doesn't exist.
The silliest argument that the ban doesn't exist is an industry-lobby group's claim that because barges and small tankers have continued to carry fuel from Vancouver to coastal communities, there can't be a ban. The moratorium or voluntary exclusion or whatever wasn't meant to stop Bella Bella from getting gas to run generators.
The whole debate largely misses the main point. Whether there is or isn't a moratorium now, should there be?
Lunn's position is significant in that context. If a moratorium exists, then the Conservatives would have to justify lifting the ban. If there is no ban, then opponents of tanker traffic would have to justify imposing one.
The B.C. government comes down somewhere in the middle. It acknowledges the ban, but says it only applies to tankers passing through B.C. waters without.
That's a critical distinction. There hasn't been any other kind of tanker traffic in the past. B.C. hasn't imported or exported oil or gas products through its ports.
But the Alberta oil sands could change that. There are five pipeline proposals to link Alberta with Prince Rupert or Kitimat. Some would transport crude; some would send condensate, used to produce the heavy oil, to Alberta.
And they would all require a steady stream of tankers heading in and out of port several times a week.
That's obviously a risk; look at the Queen of the North. But life is a series of calculations about risk and reward. How many jobs would the pipeline projects provide? How much revenue could the government collect? What can be done to ensure tanker safety?
Those are the question that need to be answered before tankers are given permission to operate in B.C.'s coastal waters, no matter whether there is now a ban or not.
And politicians need to listen to the public before any decision is made.
Footnote: The tanker traffic has already started. Fourteen tankers have been allowed through in the last 18 months delivering condensate to Kitimat. From there it's shipped to Alberta's tar sands. The tanker issue has been politically significant in the past. It could hurt the Conservatives in close B.C. races in the next election.


Anonymous said...

Who is Gary Lunn?

Richard Warnica writes: "Gary Lunn, the federal minister of natural resources, is trying to push nuclear power, rev up the oil sands, and make way for more pipelines and supertankers on B.C.'s coast. He also happens to represent one of the most environmentally conscious ridings in the country, Saanich-Gulf Islands."

"When the next election comes, Lunn will be facing not one, not two, but three small 'g' green opponents. And with the progressive vote split three ways, many say Lunn could stroll to a fifth consecutive win."

The Tyee has Warnica's article:

Anonymous said...

I suggest that the 3 Green candidates get together and elect one person to oppose Mr. Lunn.
This perceived "Lack of Moratorium" is a ploy to sanction off-shore oil exploration.
Someone is getting rich and it isn't the conservationists.

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