Editorial: On the Simushir, Oceans Minister Gail Shea takes ministerial responsibility to a new low—the bottom of the sea

On Monday, October 20, 2014, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea, stood in the House of Commons during Question Period and proved she is not up for the job.

Answering questions from  Opposition MPs about the incident of the Russian container ship, Simushir, which drifted dangerously close to the coast of Haida Gwaii, Shea got up and read a prepared script, a script with answers which ignored centuries of the laws and custom of the sea, as well as Canada’s own laws and treaty obligations, answers probably written by what are now known as “the kids in short pants” in the Prime Minister’s Office.

There was a time in this country when some ministers of the Crown took their responsibilities seriously. That idea that has decayed over the years and now has been gutted by the adminstration of Stephen Harper. As Ottawa pundits have noted recently, only a small handful of cabinet ministers in the Harper government have any real responsibility and only those  are permitted to answer questions by themselves in the Commons. According to most Ottawa insiders, the less important ministers, like Shea, are basically told what to do by the prime minister’s office.

Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, visited the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Leonard J. Cowley on Friday, December 6,  2013, to examine the fast rescue craft launching mechanism for offshore fishery patrols with Regional Director, Fleet, Stephen Decker and Captain Kerry Evely, Commanding Officer. The Cowley conducts fisheries patrols and monitors fishing activities under Canada's commitment to the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. (DFO)
Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, visited the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Leonard J. Cowley on Friday, December 6, 2013, to examine the fast rescue craft launching mechanism for offshore fishery patrols with Regional Director, Fleet, Stephen Decker and Captain Kerry Evely, Commanding Officer. The Cowley conducts fisheries patrols and monitors fishing activities under Canada’s commitment to the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. (DFO)

If the House of Commons under Harper could fall any lower, Shea’s attitude (or more likely the PMO’s attitude)  on ship and coastal safety takes the Commons and ministerial responsibility to a new low—the bottom of the sea.

Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley, who represents Haida Gwaii first asked. “Mr. Speaker, on Friday, a Russian ship carrying more than 500 million litres of bunker fuel lost all power just off the coast of Haida Gwaii.The Canadian Coast Guard vessel, the Gordon Reid, was hundreds of kilometres away, and it took almost 20 hours for it to reach the drifting ship. Thankfully, favourable winds helped keep the ship from running aground, and a private American tugboat eventually towed it to shore. Is the minister comfortable with a marine safety plan that is based on a U.S. tugboat and blind luck in order to keep B.C.’s coast safe?”

Shea responded.

“Mr. Speaker, luck had nothing to do with the situation.  The Russian ship lost power outside Canadian waters in very rough weather. The private sector provides towing service to the marine industry. We are grateful that the Canadian Coast Guard was able to keep the situation under control in very difficult conditions until the tug arrived from Prince Rupert.”

Cullen tried again:

“Mr. Speaker, if the government really wanted to show its gratitude to the Canadian Coast Guard maybe it would not have cut $20 million and 300 personnel from its budget. Even after the Gordon Reid arrived, its tow cable snapped three times. The Russian ship was only about a third as big as the huge supertankers that northern gateway would bring to the very same waters off the west coast. How can Conservatives, especially B.C. Conservatives, back their government’s plan to put hundreds of oil supertankers off the B.C. coast when we do not even have the capacity to protect ourselves right now?”

Shea replied: “Mr. Speaker, this Russian ship lost power outside of Canadian waters. The Canadian Coast Guard responded and kept the situation under control, under very difficult conditions, until the tug arrived from Prince Rupert.

We as a government have committed $6.8 billion through the renewal of the Coast Guard fleet, which demonstrates our support for the safety and security of our marine industries and for our environment.”

Related Link: Canadian Coast Guard Mid-Shore Patrol Vessel program

Next to try was Liberal MP Lawrence MacAulay from Cardigan.

“Mr. Speaker, the Russian container ship that drifted off the west coast raises serious concerns about the response capability of the Canadian Coast Guard. This serious situation was only under control when a U.S. tugboat arrived.”

Again Shea read her script: “This Russian ship lost power outside Canadian waters.  On the west coast, the private sector provides towing services to the marine industry.’

The final attempt by Liberal Joyce Murray, from Vancouver Quadra, also led to a scripted answer. “ this was a private towing vessel that came to tow the vessel that was in trouble.”

Shea’s answers, especially her repeated reference to “territorial waters” set off a series of “What the…?” posts on Twitter from west coast mariners and sailors, wondering if Shea knew anything about maritime law.

The first question one must ask was Shea actually not telling the whole truth to the House of Commons (which is forbidden by House rules) when she said the Simushir was outside Canadian waters? The Haida Nation, in a news release, (pdf) says the Simushir was “drifting about 12 Nautical Miles North West of Gowgaia Bay located off Moresby Island off Haida Gwaii.”

International law defines territorial waters  as a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state.

As Shea’s own DFO website says Canada has exercised jurisdiction over the territorial sea on its east and west coasts out to 12 nautical miles since 1970, first under the Territorial Sea and Fishing Zones Act and now under the Oceans Act. The baselines for measuring the territorial sea were originally set in 1967. While the exact position can and should be confirmed by the ship’s navigation logs and GPS track, it is clear that the container vessel could have been at one point after it lost power within Canada’s territorial waters.

Even if the Simushir wasn’t exactly within territorial waters, the ship was in what again Shea’s own DFO website calls the “contiguous zone “an area of the sea adjacent to and beyond the territorial sea. Its outer limit measures 24 nautical miles from the normal baseline zone.” In any case, the Simushir was well within what Canada says is its “exclusive economic zone” which extends 200 nautical miles from the coastal baseline.

Law of the Sea

So here is the first question about Shea’s competence.

How could she not know that the Simushir was well within Canadian jurisdiction, as defined by her own department’s website? Even if the minister hadn’t read the departmental website, wasn’t she properly briefed by DFO officials?

The second point, is that whether or not the Simushir was in  actually in Canada’s territorial waters is irrelevant. Custom going back centuries, and now the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea  and even the Canada Shipping Act all require the master of a capable vessel to render assistance once that vessel receives a distress call or sees that another vessel is in distress.

The Safety of Life at Sea Convention

… the master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so.

And the Canada Shipping Act requires

Every qualified person who is the master of a vessel in any waters, on receiving a signal from any source that a person, a vessel or an aircraft is in distress, shall proceed with all speed to render assistance and shall, if possible, inform the persons in distress or the sender of the signal.

The master of a vessel in Canadian waters and every qualified person who is the master of avessel in any waters shall render assistance to every person who is found at sea and in danger of being lost.

Note the phrase any waters. Not just in Canadian territorial waters as the Shea, the minister responsible for the ocean seemed to imply in her Commons answers.

That once again calls into question Shea’s fitness to be a minister of the Crown.

If she did not know about the UN conventions on the law of the sea, of which Canada is signatory, or the Canada Shipping Act, she is not up for the job as Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

If, as the minister responsible for oceans, she knew the law and was told by the PMO to mislead the House of Commons, she is is irresponsible and MPs should ask the Speaker if she actually broke the rules of the House.

 UN training document on the Law of the Sea Convention, including rescue at sea.  (pdf)

Regulation Seven of the Annex on Search and Rescue Services states

 Each Contracting Government undertakes to ensure that necessary arrangements are made for distress communication and co-ordination in their area of responsibility and for the rescue of persons in distress at sea around its coasts. These arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers, and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons.

Note that the regulation does not say within territorial waters, but “around its coasts.”

Rendering assistance

Canada has always rendered assistance to distressed vessels not just up and down the coast but around the world. Take the case of HMCS Chartlottetown. On February 3, 2008, HMCS Chartlottetown on anti-piracy and anti-terrorist patrol in the North Arabian Sea, spotted a rusty barge with some men stranded on the deck. It turned out the men were from Pakistan and that the vessel towing the barge had sunk with all hands, leaving only the men on the barge alive. The North Arabian Sea is far out side Canadian territorial waters.

In February, 2008. the crew of HMS Charlottown rescued the crew of a Pakistani barge that was drifting in the North Arabian sea after the tug that was hauling the barge sank. (MCS CHARLOTTETOWN’s approach team speaks to Pakistani crewmembers who were stranded on a barge after the vessel towing it sunk with their fellow crewmembers on board in the Northern Arabian Sea. MCS CHARLOTTETOWN’s approach team speaks to Pakistani crew members who were stranded on a barge after the vessel towing it sunk with their fellow crewmembers on board in the Northern Arabian Sea. (Cpl Robert LeBlanc,/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)
In February, 2008. the crew of HMCS Charlottetown rescued the crew of a Pakistani barge that was drifting in the North Arabian sea after the tug that was hauling the barge sank. (Cpl Robert LeBlanc,/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

On must wonder then if the Harper Government, or at least Minister Shea is suggesting that this country ignore centuries of maritime law and custom and, in the future, pass that barge by because it was not in Canadian waters?

Perhaps buried in the next omnibus bill we will see the Harper Government restrict rescue at sea to Canadian territorial waters. Farfetched? Well that is what Minister Shea’s answer in the Commons seems to suggest.

Given the cutbacks to the Coast Guard services over the past few years, and if there are going to be large tankers, whether LNG or bitumen, on the west coast, it is an open question whether or not the Harper government has actually made  those “arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers, and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons.”

Now comes the question of the use of the tug Barbara Foss and the two Smit tugs that later joined to tow the Simushir into Prince Rupert harbour.

It is the responibility of the owner or manager of a disabled vessel, large or small, to contract with a tug or towing service to safely take it back to port. But, and it’s a big but, the tow begins only when it is safe to do so, if there is a danger of the ship foundering, sinking or running aground, it is the obligation of all the responding vessels to render assistance, not just the tug contracted to do the job.

(There are reports that the Simushir owners chose to hire the Barbara Foss rather than the heavy duty Smit tugs available at Prince Rupert. Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan told Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail that there are about 80 boats on the west coast, capable of  heavy-duty towing, but noted that as in the case of the Simushir, those vessels may not be available when needed)

While around the Lower Mainland of BC, even a small boat that has run out of gas or has engine trouble can get commercial assistance from many service providers, the same is not true of the north coast, or at Haida Gwaii, where are no such regular services. Seapan’s Whitworth told The Globe and Mail there is often a 6,000 horsepower log hauling tug that works off Haida Gwaii. but he also noted that it would be too expensive to have a tug permanently moored on the archipelago.

That means mariners who run out of gas or have engine trouble, say on Douglas Channel, have to call Prince Rupert Coast Guard radio and request assistance either from nearby vessels or from the volunteer Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue  service. RCMSAR policy says that a the rescue boat will not tow a vessel if “commercial assistance is reguarly available.” If commercial assistance is not available RCMSAR is only obligated to tow the boat as far as a “safe haven,” where the boat can tie up safely or contract for that “commercial assistance.”

Here on Douglas Channel the safe haven is usually Kitimat harbour and thus during the summer frequently either a good  Samaritan vessel or RCMSAR take the disabled vessel all the way to MK Bay.

Shea’s pat answer to the Opposition questions only betrayed the fact that the east coast minister is woefully ignorant of conditions on the northern coast of British Columbia.

In the old days, a minister who screwed up so badly would be asked to resign. That never happens any more. Ministerial responsibility has sunk to the bottom of the sea.

The bigger picture question seems to be. Why, if the Harper government is so anxious to get hydrocarbons, whether bitumen or natural gas to “tide water” does it keep going out of its way to show its contempt for the people who live on Canada’s west coast?

A note for the voters of Prince Edward Island, where Shea is the member for Egmont. Consider this, if a ship gets into trouble outside the 12 mile limit, trouble that could threaten your beautiful red sandy beaches, you’re likely on your own.

Sending the Northern Gateway Pipeline to Prince Rupert: A dumb, dumb, dumb idea—and here are the photos to prove it.

There’s a dumb, dumb, really dumb idea that just won’t go away—that Enbridge could solve all its problems if only, if only, it would send the Northern Gateway Pipeline to Prince Rupert.

Enbridge long ago rejected the idea. Before Enbridge updated its website to make  Gateway Facts, to make it slick and more attractive, the old website had an FAQ where Enbridge explained why it wasn’t going to Prince Rupert.

Did you consider running the pipeline to Prince Rupert where a major port already exists?

We considered Prince Rupert and Kitimat as possible locations. We carried out a feasibility study that took into account a number of considerations. The study found that the routes to Prince Rupert were too steep to safely run the pipeline, and that Kitimat was the best and safest option available.

Current proposed route for the Northern Gateway pipeline. (Enbridge)
Current proposed route for the Northern Gateway pipeline. (Enbridge)

Here in the northwest even the supporters of the Northern Gateway roll their eyes when they hear the old Prince Rupert story come up again and again – and it’s not just because these people support the Kitimat plans for Northern Gateway, it’s because those supporters (not to mention the opponents) have driven along the Skeena from Terrace to Prince Rupert.

There just isn’t any room for a pipeline. It’s a game of centimetres.

A rainbow hugs the mountains near the Telegraph Point rest area on the Skeena River between Terrace and Prince Rupert, Sept. 29, 2014.  Traffic is seen on the narrow corridor between the mountains and the river (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)
A rainbow hugs the mountains near the Telegraph Point rest area on the Skeena River between Terrace and Prince Rupert, Sept. 29, 2014. Traffic is seen on the narrow corridor between the mountains and the river (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

Alternatives to Kitimat?

Now the new premier of Alberta, Jim Prentice, who should know better if he’s going to lead that province, is hinting that Kitimat isn’t the only possible solution for the Northern Gateway.

Without specifying Prince Rupert, according to Gary Mason reporting in The Globe and Mail, Prentice was speculating about an alternative to Kitimat.

Asked whether he believes the Gateway terminus should be relocated to Prince Rupert or another destination, Mr. Prentice said, “Everything I’ve heard from the Haisla who live there is they don’t agree with the terminal being in Kitimat.” Is it possible to get First Nations approval if there is no support at the planned terminus site? “It’s pretty tough,” the Premier said.

A couple of days ago, the Prince Rupert’s Mayor Jack Mussallem told The Globe and Mail in Mayor, port authority say no room for Northern Gateway pipeline in Prince Rupert

Prince Rupert has a thriving local fishing industry that employs hundreds of people and is critically important to the local First Nations. He is convinced the community would not be willing to put that at risk.
“Overwhelmingly people in my community are much more comfortable with liquefied natural gas, with wood pellets, with coal, than any oil product,” he said.

The Prince Rupert Port Authority also rejected the idea

A spokesman for the Prince Rupert Port Authority said Wednesday there is currently no room for Enbridge to build at the port even if it wanted to. “We are fully subscribed,” Michael Gurney said. There are two large vacant lots within the port authority’s jurisdiction, but both are locked by other energy companies, earmarked for LNG projects.

So not only is there no room on the road to Prince Rupert, there is no room in Prince Rupert.

Shovel-ready?

Let’s just consider for a moment that if Prince Rupert was the ideal location for the Northern Gateway terminal (which it is not), what would be needed to get the project going today.

The Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel would have be reconstituted or a new JRP created by the National Energy Board. That’s because the bitumen comes from Bruderheim, Alberta, crossing provincial boundaries and thus it’s in federal jurisdiction.

Even under the fast track rules imposed on the NEB by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, new environmental and social impact studies would be required, starting from scratch. So add another five years of paperwork before a single shovel goes into the ground.

The pipeline would have to cross the traditional territory of First Nations that, so far, have not been part of the negotiations, mostly the Tsimshian First Nation as well as the Nisga’a First Nation which has a treaty establishing local rule over their territory.

Traditional leaders of the Gitga'at First Nation lead a protest march through the streets of Prince Rupert, February 4, 2012. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)
Traditional leaders of the Gitga’at First Nation lead a protest march through the streets of Prince Rupert, February 4, 2012. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

In February 2012, the largest anti-Enbridge demonstration outside of the Lower Mainland took place in Prince Rupert, with the elders of the Tsimshian First Nation welcoming the elders and members of the Gitga’at First Nation, at Hartley Bay, which had organized the protest.

While Kitimat Council long stood neutral on the issue, the councils at Prince Rupert, Terrace, Smithers as well as the Kitimat Stikine Regional District and the Skeena Queen Charlotte Regional District had voted to oppose the Northern Gateway.

Audio Slideshow; No to Tankers Rally, Prince Rupert, February 4, 2012

The Skeena Route

The Skeena is one of the greatest salmon rivers on the planet. The Petronas LNG project has already run into problems because its planned terminal at Lelu Island would also impact the crucial eel-grass which is the nursery for young salmon leaving the Skeena and preparing to enter the ocean. Note that northern BC is generally in favour of LNG terminals, if the terminals are in the right place, so expect huge protests against any bitumen terminal at the mouth of the Skeena.

When I say there isn’t room for a pipeline along the Skeena, it also means that there isn’t any room for the pipeline corridor right-of-way. Enbridge, in its submissions to the Joint Review Panel, said it requires a 25 metre wide right of way for the pipeline corridor. (For the record that’s just over 82 feet).

Along that highway, as you will see, there’s barely enough room for the CN mainline and Highway 16 (also known as the Yellowhead Highway) and on a lot of places both the highway and the railway roadbed are built on fill along the side of a cliff.

Now I’ve said this all before, two years ago, in a piece for the Huffington Post, Get Over it! A Pipeline to Prince Rupert Is Bust

Albertans’ desperate desire to see the Northern Gateway go to anywhere to what they call “tide water” keeps coming up like the proverbial bad penny. The latest came when Jim Prentice speculated about a new route for the Northern Gateway.

I knew I had an appointment coming up in Prince Rupert on Monday, September 29. So I decided that only way to prove to people sitting in Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray playing with Google Maps that the pipeline to Prince Rupert was a really dumb idea was to shoot photographs to show just why the Northern Gateway will never go to Prince Rupert—at least along the Skeena.

As you drive out of Terrace, you pass two large swing gates (also called by some “Checkpoint Charlie” gates after the Cold War era crossing in Berlin.) At the first rest stop west of Terrace, there are another set of gates at the Exstew. There’s a third set of gates just outside Prince Rupert.

A logging truck passes the avalanche gates at Exstew on Highway 16, Sept. 29, 2014.  (Robin Rowland)
A logging truck passes the avalanche gates at Exstew on Highway 16, Sept. 29, 2014. (Robin Rowland)

The swing gates are avalanche gates and, in the winter, Highway 16 can be shut down if an avalanche closes the highway or the danger from avalanche is too great to allow motorists to proceed. When you drive the highway from Terrace to Prince Rupert in the winter (the signs were covered up when I drove Monday) you are warned “Avalanche danger Next 13 kilometres. No stopping.”

The Exstew avalanche gates, (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)
The Exstew avalanche gates, (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

The drive along the Skeena from just west of Exchamsiks River Provincial Park all the way to Tyee where the highway turns inland to reach northwest to Prince Rupert on Kaien Island is one of the most spectacular drives on this planet. The highway snakes along a narrow strip of land with steep mountain cliffs on one side and the vast river on the other.

The problem is that apart from locals and tourists, none of the “experts” whether journalist, think tanker, bureaucrat or politician have, apparently ever driven from Prince Rupert to Terrace.

When both Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau were in the northwest earlier this summer to “engage” with the local people, apart from short boat trips down Douglas Channel, they flew everywhere. Scheduling you know. Stephen Harper has never visited northwest BC and probably never intends to. His cabinet members fly in for photo ops and then are on the next plane out of town.

Of all the visiting journalists who have come to the northwest only a couple have bothered to drive around the region. Most fly-in fly-out. These days, most often budget-strapped reporters never leave their offices, interviewing the same usual suspects by phone on every story.

On Monday, I took most of the photographs on my way back from Prince Rupert to Terrace after my appointment, so the sequence is from west to east. There are also very few places along the river where you can safely stop. There are concrete barricades on both sides of the highway to prevent vehicles either going into the river or onto the narrow CN right-of-way.

There are, however, two rest stops and a number of small turnoffs on the highway, the turnoffs mainly intended for use by BC Highways, but which are also used by tourists, fishers and photographers.

aberdeencreek1

The first image was taken at one of those highway turnoffs just east of Aberdeen Creek. This is what the highway and rail corridor are like all along the Skeena, the highway, bounded by concrete barricades, the CN rail line and then the towering mountains. Note where the telegraph and telephone lines are—further up the cliffside.

aberdeencreek4

A closer view of the highway and rail corridor just east of Aberdeen Creek.

aberdeencreek3

Here is the view of the Skeena River from the Aberdeen Creek turnoff. You can see to the east, a mountain and the narrow strip of fill land that supports the highway and the rail line.

 

aberdeencreek2
You see the broad width of the mighty Skeena, the Misty River, as it is called by the Tsimshian First Nation and by everyone else who lives in the northwest and on the right side of the image, the highway and rail corridor built on fill.

Any room for a pipeline?

aberdeencreek5

There’s another turnoff on the other side of the headland east of Aberdeen Creek, looking back the way we came.

khyex1

The final small turnoff is just by the Kylex River. Again you can see how narrow the highway and rail corridor are.

basalt

A few kilometres further along—as I said the highway snakes and curves its way along the riverbank–  you come to the Basalt Creek rest area. So this telephoto image shows a logging truck heading west,   taken from Basalt Creek, looking back at the highway.

Again you can see both the highway and CN line are built on fill. Is there any room for a pipeline?

Any room for a 25 metre pipeline right-of-way?

Between Basalt Creek and Telegraph Point, a few kilometres to the east, again the highway and rail line hug the narrow strip between the river and mountains.

Rowland_CN_container_Skeena

This shot, taken from Telegraph Point, in October 2013, shows a CN intermodal container train heading to Prince Rupert. The container trains and the coal trains usually have between 150 and 180 cars. If a winter avalanche took out a train, there would be environmental damage, but that damage would be insignificant from coal or containers compared to a train of railbit tankers carrying diluted bitumen.

At Telegraph Point, the second of the three rest stops between Prince Rupert and Terrace, again there is just a narrow strip between the mountain, the highway and the river.

telegraph1

telegraph2

Across the highway from the rest stop, you can again see the narrow corridor, the first shot looking west the rail line close to the cliff face, the second, east, with the waterfall, which you don’t see during the rest of the year, fed by the fall monsoon.

 

telegraphmarch2013Two shots from the same location, Telegraph Point, taken in March, 2013, of a CN locomotive hauling empty coal cars back to the fields around Tumbler Ridge. (No waterfall in March)

telegraphmarch2013_1

 

Alternative routes

Everyone has assumed that if Northern Gateway changed its route, the most likely choice given the configuration of the pipeline at the moment is to follow the Skeena.

There are alternatives. The Petronas LNG project and its partner TransCanada Pipelines have proposed a more northern cross-country route, which would go north from the Hazeltons, avoiding the Skeena 

Proposed natural gas pipeline. (TransCanada)
Proposed natural gas pipeline. (TransCanada)

The BG Group and Spectra Energy are also contemplating a pipeline…although details on the website are rather sparse.

If Enbridge wanted to try a northern route, similar to the one TransCanada contemplates for Petronas, Northern Gateway would again run into trouble.

It would require reopening or creating a new Joint Review Panel, many more years of environmental and social impact studies of the route, even under Stephen Harper’s fast track system. The TransCanada/Petronas pipeline would also cross the traditional territory of the Gitxsan First Nation and if Enbridge tried that the company would have to deal with the fact that it signed a controversial agreement with Elmer Derrick that was immediately repudiated by most members of the Gitxsan First Nation and eventually dropped by Enbridge.

So why does this idea of a pipeline to Prince Rupert keep coming up?

In most cases, the idea of the pipeline to Prince Rupert is always proposed by Albertans, not from any credible source in British Columbia, or the suggestions come from desk bound analysts in Toronto and Ottawa both in think tanks and in the newsrooms of dying newspapers who have never seen the Skeena River apart from a tiny handful who have looked at Google Street View

(Yes you can Google Street View Highway 16 along the Skeena, I recommend it if you can’t do the drive)

Perhaps the worst example of this failure of both analysis and journalism came in the Edmonton Journal on July 7,2014, when it published a piece by Bob Russell, entitled Opinion: Make Prince Rupert the terminus, which went over the same old inaccurate arguments.

The overland route currently proposed by Enbridge is fraught with environmental issues because it goes over coastal mountains and streams before entering Kitimat’s port. This port will also be the base of perhaps as many as four liquefied natural gas terminals, which will result in the channel always busy with LNG ships outbound and returning from many Asian ports.

There are existing rights of way for the major highway, the Yellowhead, and CN Rail line from Edmonton to the Port of Prince Rupert, so this eliminates the issue of transgressing First Nations lands. The technical issues of narrow passages can be overcome with engineering. In fact, the pipeline can be buried in the roadway at some restricted locations if absolutely necessary, but two different engineers have assured me that for the most part, the right of way should be able to handle the pipeline. A vital factor, of course, is to reduce the impact by eliminating the need for two pipelines.

The clue is how the Edmonton Journal describes Russell;

Bob Russell has an extensive background in planning and was a member of the Edmonton Metro Regional Planning Commission. He has flown the Douglas Channel, visited Kitimat and toured the Port of Prince Rupert.

This is so typical of the Albertan attitude toward northwest British Columbia,  people fly in for a couple of days, make a quick observation, and fly out again and present themselves as experts on the region. (Some “experts” on Kitimat, very active on Twitter have apparently never left Calgary).

It obvious that the “two engineers” who assured him “the right-of-way could handle of pipeline” have no idea what they’re talking about. As the photos show there is barely enough room for a highway and a rail line much less a 25 metre wide pipeline corridor.

If the pipeline was to be built as Russell proposed, the only highway between Prince Rupert and the rest of Canada would have to be closed for years, there are no detours.  All so a pipeline can be buried under the asphalt not in solid ground, but in the fill on the side of a riverbank in an avalanche zone?

Of course, closing a highway up here won’t inconvenience anyone in Edmonton or Calgary, will it?

Would CN be happy with years of disruption of their lucrative traffic to Prince Rupert with grain and coal outbound to Asia and all those containers coming in to feed Chinese products to the North American market? (you can be sure Walmart wouldn’t be happy about that, not to mention prairie farmers including those from Alberta)

Russell’s statement

There are existing rights of way for the major highway, the Yellowhead, and CN Rail line from Edmonton to the Port of Prince Rupert, so this eliminates the issue of transgressing First Nations lands.

Is also inaccurate.

I was told by First Nations leaders during the Idle No More demonstrations in the winter of 2013, that, a century ago, when the Grand Trunk built the railway along the Skeena , they did just that, built it without consulting the First Nations along the route, sometime digging up native cemeteries and sacred spots.

While apparently CN has worked in recent years to improve relations with the First Nations along the rail line, according to those leaders some issues of right-of-way remain to be resolved.

If there were any plans to build a diluted bitumen pipeline along that route, that would likely mean another court battle adding to those already before the Federal Court, a court battle that would cost Enbridge, CN, the federal government, environmental NGOs and the First Nations more millions in lawyers’ fees.

It’s doubtful if in the long gone (and perhaps mythical) days of “get it right” journalism that the Russell opinion piece would have passed the scrutiny of an old fashioned copy editor and fact checker.

In 2012, the Edmonton Journal (in a story no longer available on their website) also cited former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed and former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge, as also favouring Prince Rupert.

Dodge, who was in Edmonton Tuesday to deliver a speech on the global economic outlook at MacEwan University, said Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat looks like even more of a long shot.
“I think the project to Kitimat looks, objectively, more risky. So why hasn’t much greater effort gone into looking at Prince Rupert and taking (bitumen) out that way? My guess is, the easiest place to get B.C. to buy into the project would be to go to Rupert.”
Dodge’s views echo those of former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, who also favours looking at an alternate pipeline route to Prince Rupert, where ocean-going supertankers can navigate more easily.

Back in 2012, I finished my piece for the Huffington Post by saying:

So why do people insist, despite the evidence, that the Northern Gateway go to Prince Rupert? It’s no longer an pipeline; it’s emotion and ideology. Ideology in that opposition to the Northern Gateway is seen by conservatives as heretical opposition to free enterprise itself. Emotion among those who see promoting the oil patch as an issue of “Alberta pride” and even Canadian patriotism.
For the promoters of the pipeline to Prince Rupert, ignoring the science of geology and the study of geography across all of northwestern B.C. is no different than repeatedly knocking your head against the Paleozoic metamorphic greenstone of the mountain cliffs along the Skeena. It only gives you a headache.

Things haven’t gotten much better in the past two years. In fact they’re getting worse as opposition to pipelines mounts.

It seems that in 2014  the Alberta and the federal government policy in promoting pipelines Northern Gateway, KinderMorgan’s TransMountain, Keystone XL, Line 9 Reversal and Energy East (slick PR and smiling representatives at open houses, politicians at strictly controlled photo ops) is to ignore facts on the ground and to refuse to deal with the concerns of local people from coast to coast.

There could, perhaps, be a more inclusive and truly science-based pipeline planning process that could see pipelines go on optimum routes but that isn’t happening.

The policy  for the oil patch and its politician supporters when it comes to pipelines is facts and geology don’t really matter. So they put on ruby slippers, knock their heels together three times and send pipelines down a yellow brick road to an Emerald City (while telling the locals to ignore the man behind the curtain)

Related links

The Save Our Salmon website has a different view, arguing that federal government and the energy companies have a plan to create an energy corridor for bitumen pipelines to Prince Rupert.

Ocean acidification growing risk to west coast fishery, including crab and salmon, US studies show

The United States says acidification of the oceans means there is an already growing risk to the northwest coast fishery, including crab and salmon, according to studies released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere and absorbed by the oceans, the water is becoming more acidic and that affects many species, especially shellfish, dissolving the shells.

A NOAA study released today of environmental and economic risks to the Alaska fishery says:

Many of Alaska’s nutritionally and economically valuable marine fisheries are located in waters that are already experiencing ocean acidification, and will see more in the near future…. Communities in southeast and southwest Alaska face the highest risk from ocean acidification because they rely heavily on fisheries that are expected to be most affected by ocean acidification…

An earlier NOAA study, released in April, identified a long term threat to the salmon fishery as small ocean snails called pteropods which are a prime food source for pink salmon are already being affected by the acidification of the ocean.

Pteropod
This photograph from NOAA of a pteropod, important in the ocean diet of pink salmon, shows the first evidence of marine snails from the natural environment along the U.S. West Coast with signs that shells are dissolving. (NOAA)

NOAA says:

The term “ocean acidification” describes the process of ocean water becoming more acidic as a result of absorbing nearly a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from human sources. This change in ocean chemistry is affecting marine life, particularly the ability of shellfish, corals and small creatures in the early stages of the food chain to build skeletons or shells.

Today’s NOAA study is the first published research by the Synthesis of Arctic Research (SOAR) program, which is supported by an US inter-agency agreement between NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Alaska Region.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans says it has ongoing studies on oceanic acidification including the role of petropods in the lifecycle of the salmon.

Des Nobles, President of Local #37 Fish [UFAWU-UNIFOR] told Northwest Coast Energy News that the fisheries union and other fisheries groups in Prince Rupert have asked both the Canadian federal and the BC provincial governments for action on ocean acidification. Nobles says so far those requests have been ignored,

Threat to crabs

The studies show that red king crab and tanner crab grow more slowly and don’t survive as well in more acidic waters. Alaska’s coastal waters are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification because of cold water that can absorb more carbon dioxide and unique ocean circulation patterns which bring naturally acidic deep ocean waters to the surface.

“We went beyond the traditional approach of looking at dollars lost or species impacted; we know these fisheries are lifelines for native communities and what we’ve learned will help them adapt to a changing ocean environment,” said Jeremy Mathis, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, and the director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Ocean Acidification Research Center.

As for Dungeness crab, Sarah Cooley,  a  co-author of the Alaska study, who was with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at the time, told Northwest Coast Energy News, “The studies have not been done for Dungeness crab that have been done for king and tanner crab, that’s something we’re keenly aware of. There’s a big knowledge gap at this point.” She says NOAA may soon be looking at pilot study on Dungeness crab.

Healthy pteropod
A healthy pteropod collected during the U.S. West Coast survey cruise. (NOAA)

Risk to Salmon, Mackerel and Herring

In a 2011-2013 survey, a NOAA-led research team found the first evidence: “that acidity of continental shelf waters off the West Coast is dissolving the shells of tiny free-swimming marine snails, called pteropods, which provide food for pink salmon, mackerel and herring.”

The survey estimated that the percentage of pteropods along the west coast with dissolving shells due to ocean acidification had “doubled in the near shore habitat since the pre-industrial era and is on track to triple by 2050 when coastal waters become 70 percent more corrosive than in the pre-industrial era due to human-caused ocean acidification.”

That study documented the movement of corrosive waters onto the continental shelf from April to September during the upwelling season, when winds bring water rich in carbon dioxide up from depths of about 120 to  180 metres to the surface and onto the continental shelf.

“We haven’t done the extensive amount of studies yet on the young salmon fry,” Cooley said. “I would love to see those studies done. I think there is a real need for that information. Salmon are just so so important for the entire Pacific Northwest and up to Alaska.”

In Prince Rupert, Barb Faggetter, an independent oceanographer whose company Ocean Ecology has consulted for the fisherman’s union and NGOs, who was not part of the study, spoke generally about the threat of acidification to the region.

She is currently studying the impact of the proposed Liquified Natural Gas terminals that could be built at Prince Rupert near the Skeena River estuary. Faggetter said that acidification could affect the species eaten by juvenile salmon. “As young juveniles they eat a lot of zooplankton including crustaceans and shell fish larvae.”

She added, “Any of the shell fish in the fishery,  including probably things like sea urchins are all organisms that are susceptible to ocean acidification because of the loss of their capacity to actually incorporate calcium carbonate into their shells.”

Faggetter said her  studies have concentrated on potential habitat loss near Prince Rupert as a result of dredging and other activities for liquified natural gas development,  She adds that ocean acidification “has been a consideration that climate change will further worsen any potential damage that we’re currently looking at.”

Her studies of the Skeena estuary are concentrating on “rating” areas based on the food supply available to juvenile salmon, as well as predation and what habitat is available and the quality of that habitat to identify areas that “are most important for the juvenile salmon coming out of the Skeena River estuary and which are less important.”

She said that climate change and ocean acidification could impact the Skeena estuary and “probably reduce some of the environments that are currently good because they have a good food supply. If ocean acidification reduces that food supply that will no longer be good habitat for them” [juvenile salmon].

NOAA expediton
Bongo nets are deployed up to 200 meters deep to catch marine snails (pteropods), which are indicators of the progress of ocean acidification. The pteropod samples were collected during the U.S. West Coast survey cruises in 2011 and 2013. Unlike the US, Canada’s DFO is using models to track what’s happening to pteropods. (NOAA)

The  August 2011 NOAA survey of the pteropods was done at sea using “bongo nets” to retrieve the small snails at depths up to 200 metres. The research drew upon a West Coast survey by the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program in that was conducted on board the R/V Wecoma, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by Oregon State University.

The DFO study, according to the agency website is “being examined in the context of model predictions.

Nina Bednarsek, Ph.D., of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, the lead author of the  April pteropod paper said, “Our findings are the first evidence that a large fraction of the West Coast pteropod population is being affected by ocean acidification.

“Dissolving coastal pteropod shells point to the need to study how acidification may be affecting the larger marine ecosystem. These near shore waters provide essential habitat to a great diversity of marine species, including many economically important fish that support coastal economies and provide us with food.”

Ecology and economy

Today’s study on the effects of acidification on the Alaska fishery study examined the potential effects on a state where the fishing industry supports over 100,000 jobs and generates more than $5 billion in annual revenue. Fishery-related tourism also brings in $300 million annually to the state.

Map of Alaska
A map of Alaska shows the economic and ecological risks to parts of the state from ocean acidification. (NOAA)

The study also shows that approximately 120,000 people or roughly 17 percent of Alaskans rely on subsistence fisheries for most, if not all of their dietary protein. The Alaska subsistence fishery is open to all residents of the state who need it, although a majority of those who participate in the subsistence fishery are Alaska’s First Nations. In that way it is somewhat parallel to Canada’s Food, Ceremonial and Social program for First Nations.

“Ocean acidification is not just an ecological problem—it’s an economic problem,” said Steve Colt, Ph.D., co-author of the study and an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “The people of coastal Alaska, who have always looked to the sea for sustenance and prosperity, will be most affected. But all Alaskans need to understand how and where ocean acidification threatens our marine resources so that we can work together to address the challenges and maintain healthy and productive coastal communities.”

The Alaska study recommends that residents and stakeholders in vulnerable regions prepare for environmental challenge and develop response strategies that incorporate community values and needs.

“This research allows planners to think creatively about ways to help coastal communities withstand environmental change,” said Cooley, who is now science outreach manager at Ocean Conservancy, in Washington, D.C.  “Adaptations can be tailored to address specific social and environmental weak points that exist in a community.

“This is really the first time that we’ve been able to go under the hood and really look at the factors that make a particular community in a borough or census are less or more vulnerable from changing conditions resulting from acidification. It gives us a lot of power so that we don’t just look at environmental issues but also look at the social story behind that risk.”

As for the southern part of the Alaska panhandle nearest British Columbia, Cooley said, “What we found is that there is a high relative risk compared to some of the other areas of Alaska and that is because the communities there undertake a lot of subsistence fishing, There tend not be a whole lot of commercial harvests in the fisheries there but they are very very important from a subsistence stand point… And they’re tied to species that we expect to be on the front line of acidification, many of the clam species that are harvested in that area and some of the crab species.”

Long term effects

Libby Jewett, Director of the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program  and author of  the pteropod study said,  “Acidification of our oceans may impact marine ecosystems in a way that threatens the sustainability of the marine resources we depend on.

“Research on the progression and impacts of ocean acidification is vital to understanding the consequences of our burning of fossil fuels.”

“Acidification is happening now,” Cooley said. “We have not yet observed major declines in Alaskan harvested species. In Washington and Oregon they have seen widespread oyster mortality from acidification.

“We don’t have the documentation for what’s happening in Alaska right now but there are a lot of studies staring up right now that will just keep an eye out for that sort of thing,  Acidification is going to be continuing progressively over the next decades into the future indefinitely until we really curb carbon dioxide emissions. There’s enough momentum in the system that is going to keep acidification advancing for quite some time.

“What we need to be doing as we cut the carbon dioxide, we need to find ways to strength communities that depend on resources and this study allows us to think differently about that and too really look at how we can strengthen those communities.

Faggetter said. “It’s one more blow to an already complex situation here, My study has been working particularly on eel grass on Flora Bank (pdf) which is a very critical habitat, which is going to be impacted by these potential industrial developments and that impact will affect our juvenile salmon and our salmon fishery very dramatically, that could be further worsened by ocean acidification.”

She said that acidification could also be a long term threat to plans in Prince Rupert to establish a geoduck fishery (pronounced gooey-duck).

The popular large 15 to 20 centimetre clam is harvested in Washington State and southern BC, but so far hasn’t been  subject to commercial fishing in the north.

NOAA said today’s study shows that by examining all the factors that contribute to risk, more opportunities can be found to prevent harm to human communities at a local level. Decision-makers can address socioeconomic factors that lower the ability of people and communities to adapt to environmental change, such as low incomes, poor nutrition, lack of educational attainment and lack of diverse employment opportunities.

NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program and the state of Alaska are also developing tools to help industry adapt to increasing acidity.

The new NOAA study is the first published research by the Synthesis of Arctic Research (SOAR) program. which is supported by an inter-agency agreement between NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Alaska Region.

The pteropod study was published in April in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The ecological and economic study is published in Progress in Oceanography.

First Nations historical herring harvest offers “deep time perspective” to modern managers, SFU study says

SFU archaeologists
Iain McKechnie and Dana Lepofsky examine ancient herring fish bones that tell the story about how gigantic herring fisheries were for thousands of years in the Pacific Northwest. (SFU)

The herring, now dwindling on on the Pacific Coast, was once “superabundant” from Washington State through British Columbia to Alaska and that is a warning for the future, a new study says.

A team of scientists lead by Simon Fraser University argue that the archaeological record on the Pacific Coast offers a “deep time perspective” going back ten thousand years that can be a guide for future management of the herring and other fish species.

An archaeological study looked at 171 First Nations’ sites from Washington to Alaska and recovered and analyzed 435,777 fish bones from various species.

Herring bones were the most abundant and dating shows that herring abundance can be traced from about 10,700 years ago to about the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of Europeans and the adoption of industrial harvesting methods by both settlers and some First Nations.

That means herring were perhaps the greatest food source for First Nations for ten thousand years surpassing the “iconic salmon.” Herring bones were the most frequent at 56 per cent of the sites surveyed and made up for 49 per cent of the bones at sites overall.

The study was published online Monday, February 17, 2014, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Simon Fraser University researchers Iain McKechnie, Dana Lepofsky and Ken Lertzman, and scientists in Ontario, Alberta and the United States are its co-authors.

The study is one of many initiatives of the SFU-based Herring School, a group of researchers that investigates the cultural and ecological importance of herring.

“By compiling the largest data set of archaeological fish bones in the Pacific Northwest Coast, we demonstrate the value of using such data to establish an ecological baseline for modern fisheries,” says Iain McKechnie. The SFU archaeology postdoctoral fellow is the study’s lead author and a recent University of British Columbia graduate.

Co-author and SFU archaeology professor Dana Lepofsky states: “Our archaeological findings fit well with what First Nations have been telling us. Herring have always played a central role in the social and economic lives of coastal communities. Archaeology, combined with oral traditions, is a powerful tool for understanding coastal ecology prior to industrial development.”

The researchers drew from their ancient data-catch concrete evidence that long-ago herring populations were consistently abundant and widespread for thousands of years. This contrasts dramatically with today’s dwindling and erratic herring numbers.

“This kind of ecological baseline extends into the past well beyond the era of industrial fisheries. It is critical for understanding the ecological and cultural basis of coastal fisheries and designing sustainable management systems today,” says Ken Lertzman, another SFU co-author. The SFU School of Resource and Environmental Management professor directs the Hakai Network for Coastal People, Ecosystems and Management.

Map of First Nations sites with fish bones
Map of First Nations’ archaeological sites with high numbers of fish bones. Herring is abundant in sites throughout the Strait of Georgia. In 71% of sites, herring makes up at least 20 per cent of the bones found at the site. (SFU/PNAS)

Heiltsuk tradition

The paper says that the abundance of herring is additionally mirrored in First Nations’ place
names and origin narratives. They give the example of the 2,400-y-old site at Nulu where herring
made up about 85 per cent of the fish found in local middens. In Heiltsuk oral tradition, it is Nulu where Raven first found herring. Another site, 25 kilometres away at the Koeye River, has only has about 10 per cent herring remains and is not associated with herring in Heiltsuk tradition.

(In an e-mail to Northwest Coast Energy News, McKechnie said “there is a paucity of archaeological data from Kitimat and Douglas Channel. There is considerable data from around Prince Rupert, the Dundas Islands and on the central coast Namu/Bella Bella/ Rivers Inlet area and in southern Haida Gwaii.”)

The study says that the archaeological record indicates that places with abundant herring were consistently harvested over time, and suggests that the areas where herring massed or spawned were more extensive and less variable in the past than today. It says that even if there were natural variations in the herring population, the First Nations harvest did not affect the species overall.

It notes:

Many coastal groups maintained family-owned locations for harvesting herring and herring roe from anchored kelp fronds, eel grass, or boughs of hemlock or cedar trees. Herring was harvested at other times of the year than the spawning period when massing in local waters but most ethnohistorical observations identify late winter and springtime spawning as a key period of harvest for both roe and fish.

The herring and herring roe were either consumed or traded among the First Nations.

Sustainable harvests encouraged by building kelp gardens,wherein some roe covered fronds were not collected, by minimizing noise and movement during spawning events, and by elaborate systems of kin-based rights and responsibilities that regulated herring use and distribution.

Industrial harvesting

Industrial harvesting and widespread consumption changed all that. Large numbers of herring were harvested to for rendering to oil or meal. By 1910, the problem was already becoming clear. In that year British Columbia prohibited the reduction of herring for oil and fertilizer. There were reports at that time that larger bays on the Lower Mainland were “being gradually deserted by the larger schools where they were formerly easily obtained.”

But harvesting continued, in 1927 the fishery on eastern Vancouver Island, Columbia, processed
31,103 tons of herring. The SFU study notes that that is roughly twice the harvest rate for 2012 and would also be about 38 per cent of the current herring biomass in the Strait of Georgia.
In Alaska, reduction of herring began in 1882 and reached a peak of 75,000 tons in 1929.

As the coastal populations dwindled, as with other fisheries, the emphasis moved to deeper water. By the 1960s, the herring populations of British Columbia and Washington had collapsed. Canada banned herring reduction entirely in 1968, Washington followed in the early 1980s.

In the 1970s, the herring population off Japan collapsed, which opened up the demand for North American roe, which targeted female herring as they were ready to spawn. That further reduced the herring population so that the roe fishery is now limited to just a few areas including parts of the Salish Sea and off Sitka and Togiak, Alaska.

The First Nations food, social and ceremonial herring fishery continues.

Government fishery managers, scientists, and local and indigenous peoples lack consensus on the cumulative consequences of ongoing commercial fisheries on herring populations. Many First Nations, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and other local fishers, based on personal observations and traditional knowledge, hypothesize that local herring stocks, on which they consistently relied for generations, have been dramatically reduced and made more difficult to access following 20th century industrial fishing

Deep time perspective

The SFU study says that some fisheries managers are suggesting that the herring population has just shifted to other locations and other causes may be climate change and the redounding of predator populations.

But the study concludes, that:

Our data support the idea that if past populations of Pacific herring exhibited substantial variability, then this variability was expressed around a high enough mean abundance such that there was adequate herring available for indigenous fishers to sustain their harvests but avoid the extirpation of local populations.

These records thus demonstrate a fishery that was sustainable at local and regional scales over millennia, and a resilient relationship between harvesters, herring, and environmental change that has been absent in the modern era.

Archaeological data have the potential to provide a deep time perspective on the interaction between humans and the resources on which they depend.

Furthermore, the data can contribute significantly toward developing temporally meaningful ecological baselines that avoid the biases of shorter-term records.

Other universities participating in the study were the University of British Columbia, University of Oregon, Portland State University, Lakehead University, University of Toronto, Rutgers University and the University of Alberta.

 

RELATED:

BC First Nations Opposition to Commercial Herring Fisheries supported by DFO

Fisheries minister ignored advice from own scientists

Oil spill caused “unexpected lethal impact” on herring, study shows

District of Kitimat calls for plebiscite on the Northern Gateway project

Phil Germuth
Councillor Phil Germuth listens as District of Kitimat Council debates his motion that would have required Enbridge to enhance monitoring of leaks on the pipeline in the Kitimat watershed. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

District of Kitimat Council voted Monday night to hold a plebiscite on whether or not the community supports the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway project.

District council and staff will decide the actual question for voters and the date for the plebiscite in the coming couple of weeks.

A staff report described a plebiscite as “a non-binding form of referendum,” as defined by the BC Local Government Act.

The council decision comes after the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel released its decision on December 16, that approved the pipeline and tanker project along with 209 conditions.

After the release of the Joint Review decision, the District of Kitimat issued a news release saying, “Kitimat Council has taken a neutral stance with respect to Northern Gateway. Council will take the necessary time to review the report in order to understand the content and reasons for the decision.”

On January 16, 2012 the council adopted a resolution “that after the completion of the JRP process, the District of Kitimat survey the residents of Kitimat regarding their opinion on the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.” After the JRP decision, the District reaffrimed that it would “undertake a survey of Kitimat residents to determine their opinions of the project now that the JRP has concluded its process.”

District staff had recommended hiring an independent polling firm to conduct the survey, pointing to a pollster’s ability to craft the appropriate questions and provide quick results.

Council quickly shot down the idea. A motion by Councillor Mario Feldhoff to use a polling firm did not get a seconder.

Councillor Rob Goffinet, who made the motion for the plebiscite, noted that even as a politician he doesn’t answer phone calls from unknown numbers. He said, “People do not want a pollster to phone them and do a check list how do you feel on a project. How can we be assured if someone in or out of their home will answer a call from a pollster? I would give total responsibility to every adult citizen of Kitimat who has a point of view to express it in a yes or no ballot.”

Councillor Phil Germuth added, “Those are the same companies that went out prior to the last provincial election and said one party was going to wipe it out and we know what happened there.” Germuth was referring to BC Premier Christy Clark’s come from behind majority victory which was not predicted in the polls.

Germuth told the meeting he believed an unbiased question could be posed in the form of a referendum on the Northern Gateway project. “I have full confidence in our staff that they will be able, along with some assistance from council, to develop questions that are not going to appear biased. It should be very simple, yes means yes, no means no.”

Councillor Mario Feldhoff, who earlier in the evening had, for the first time, declared that he is in favour of the Northern Gateway project, told council that he preferred using a polling firm because it could come back with a “statistically significant” result.

Council voted six to one in favour of the plebiscite. The lone dissenter was Councillor Edwin Empinado who told his colleagues that a mail-in ballot, another of the options presented by staff, would be more inclusive.  Empinado said he was concerned that a plebiscite would mean a low voter turnout.

Warren Waycheshen, the district’s deputy chief administrative officer, told council that the plebiscite would have to be held under the provisions of BC’s Local Government Act which covers elections and referenda, but with the plebiscite the council would have more flexibility in deciding how the vote would take place. The act would still cover such things as who was eligible to vote and the use of campaign signs.

Mario Feldhoff
Councillor Mario Feldhoff reads a statement at council, supporting the findings of the Joint Review panel on the Northern Gateway project. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

The neutrality that council had maintained for at least the previous three years began to break down during Monday’s meeting meeting when Germuth proposed a motion that would have required Enbridge to install within Kitimat’s jurisdiction a detection system capable of locating small volumes of leakage from the pipeline, a measure that is likely beyond the recommendations of the JRP decision.

It was then that Feldhoff became the first Kitimat councillor to actually declare for or against the Northern Gateway, telling council, saying he agreed with the JRP, “The overall risk was manageable and the project was in Canada’s interest. On the whole I am in favour of the conditions and recommendations of the JRP… Not only am I a District of Kitimat Councillor, I am a Canadian. To my mind, opposition to the JRP Northern Gateway report at this stage is yet another case of NIMBY-ism, not in my backyard.”

In the end, at Feldhoff’s urging, the council modified the original motion, so that it called on the District to meet with Enbridge to discuss an enhanced pipeline leak detection system where a leak could “impact the Kitimat watershed.”

It’s not clear what Council will do with the result of the plebiscite, since it is “non-binding.”

 In the past two years, Terrace, Prince Rupert and Smithers councils, together with Kitimat Stikine Regional District and the Skeena Queen Charlotte Regional District, all voted to oppose Northern Gateway. Those were all council votes, taken without surveying local opinion.

Most of the decisions are in the hands of the federal government which has 180 days from the release of the JRP report to approve the project.

 

Bitumen excluded from data for federal tanker study, documents reveal

Tanker risk map
Transport Canada tanker report map shows current risk for spills in BC (Transport Canada)

 

Genivar report
Cover of Genivar tanker report (Transport Canada)

 

The possible effects of a bitumen spill on Pacific waters were not considered in the oil response preparedness report released last week by the Harper government, the background data study reveals.

The consulting firm that did the study for Transport Canada, Genivar Inc, had no reliable data on the effect of a bitumen tanker disaster—because, so far, there has been no major ocean disaster involving diluted bitumen.

Instead, Genivar, based its findings on potential hazards and response on existing data on crude oil spills.

The Genivar study, however, does warn, that if the Enbridge Northern Gateway project does go ahead,  the spill risk from diluted bitumen carrying tankers in Douglas Channel and along the north Pacific coast will jump from “low” or “medium” to “very high.” If the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline goes ahead, then the risk in Vancouver also jumps to “very high.”

The question of how bitumen might behave in the cold and choppy waters of the North Pacific was hotly debated during the Northern Gateway Joint Review hearings earlier this year. Enbridge Northern Gateway based its position on laboratory studies, studies that were challenged by environmental and First Nations intervenors, pointing both to the unknowns of the ocean environment and the continuing problems Enbridge has in cleaning up the spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

Genivar tried to base its report to Transport Canada on existing data on oil spills and related hazards. What it found instead is that that there are often gaping holes in the reporting and monitoring of oil spills world wide, especially small and medium sized spills.

Lack of data also meant that Genivar had little to go on when it calculated the effect on an oil spill on key areas of interest to northwest British Columbia, the recreational fishery and tourism.
Genivar, however, did uncover disturbing data about the long term effects of oil spills, studies that show even minute amounts of remaining oil can still disrupt the marine environment 40 years after an event.

The Genivar report, Risk Assessment for Marine Spills in Canadian Waters Phase 1: Oil Spills South of 60th Parallel, was completed in November, then passed on to the “expert panel” that released their own report: A Review of Canada’s Ship-source Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime — Setting the Course for the Future. That second report was based not only on the data provided by Genivar but on the expertise of three panel members, their visits to some locations and input from government, industry, First Nations and municipalities.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver unveiled the second report at a glitzy media event  in Vancouver on Tuesday, December 10. At that time the expert panel report was released to the media along with an abstract of the data.

The actual data report was not posted; it had to be requested through the Transport Canada website, which is how Northwest Coast Energy News obtained the background study.

High risk for Kitimat

Transport Canada tanker report
Expert panel tanker risk assessment report cover (Transport Canada)

The expert panel found “a very high risk” of oil spills in two areas of the Pacific Coast, in the north around the ports of Kitimat and Prince Rupert and in the heavy ocean traffic area of southern British Columbia, especially Port Metro Vancouver and into Washington State.

The expert panel made 45 recommendations that covered a wide range of issues including eliminating the present $161-million liability limit for each spill and replacing it with unlimited liability for polluters, annual spill training involving the Canadian Coast Guard, Environment Canada, provincial and local authorities and the private sector, increased and improved annual spill training exercises, basing risk assessment on local geography and conditions and faster emergency responses to spills.

The expert panel calls for greatly increased research on the ocean environment at a time that Harper government has been gutting environmental research across Canada, while spinning that its policies are “science based.”

The science and technology around both the movement of oil and spill response has advanced significantly over the past several decades. We feel that while some aspects of the Regime have kept pace with these developments, in some areas, Canada has fallen behind world-leading countries like Norway and France. This can be attributed to a general lack of investment in research and development as well as the lack of coordination between industry and government over research priorities.

The Government of Canada should work closely with industry to establish a national research and development program for oil spill preparedness and response. The program should be co-funded by industry and the Government, and the research priorities should be set through a collaborative process that involves academia, where possible. Like the Regime itself, we view this program as a partnership between industry and government.

We envision that this program would also seek to leverage the work being done internationally on oil spill preparedness and response. The program should seek to establish partnerships with other world-leading countries in order to stay current on international advances and new technologies.

The expert panel, however, does not say how the federal government is expected to pay for meeting BC Premier Christy Clark’s condition for a “world class” spill prevention and response system at a time that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is determined to balance the budget and the Harper government is continuing to cut back government services.

Bitumen excluded

On bitumen, the Genivar data study says:

Modified bitumen products represent the majority of the “crude carried as cargo” in
Pacific sub-sector 5. They are not modelled as a separate category in this spill behaviour analysis but are represented as “persistent crude”.

Changes in spill behaviour depend to some extent on the environmental conditions at the time of the spill, as described in greater detail below. However, over the range of wind and sea conditions typically experienced in the Canadian marine environment, changes in oil properties are not overly sensitive to variations in climatic values, so a single set of wind and sea conditions will be used in the analysis.

The idea that “changes in oil properties” not being sensitive to variations in climate was also frequently challenged before the Joint Review Panel.

On the increase in traffic volume if the Northern Gateway project goes ahead, the Genivar report says.

Enbridge Inc. has proposed to construct a marine terminal at Kitimat, B.C. and a dual pipeline from the terminal to oil sands production in northern Alberta. The terminal would handle up to 193,000 barrels/day of imported diluents (i.e., low-gravity condensate) that would be piped to Alberta and used to dilute bitumen to enhance its flow properties. The diluted bitumen would then be piped to Kitimat at rates up to 525,000 barrels/day that would be shipped by tanker to export to markets in Asia and California.

At full capacity, the import of diluent and export of diluted bitumen would total up to 35 Mt/year. This amount is comparable to the currently-shipped volume in the Pacific sector related to volumes being exported from Vancouver and related to volumes being exported from the Alaskan to Washington State trade.

It goes on to say that the current tanker traffic on the north Pacific coast “has negligible risk in the near shore and intermediate zones, but significant potential spill frequency in the deep-sea zone related to the Alaskan trade.” Similarly, according to Genivar the environmental risk in the region “currently ranges from ‘medium’ to “very low” from near shore to deep-sea zones, respectively…. mainly driven by a combination of physical and biological features.”

The increase in traffic from Northern Gateway would likely increase the environmental risks. The the near shore risk from would jump from “very low” to “very high.” For the largest spill category, deep-sea risk would likely increase from “low” to “medium.”

No data on recreational or traditional First Nations fishery

To study the effect on an oil spill on the fishery, Genivar used data from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as the provinces to gauge “the port value of commercial fishing and the value of the fish, shellfish and aquaculture” in each zone it studied and then compared it to the the national averages for commercial fishery. Those figures included any commercial fishery by First Nations.

But Genivar noted, there is no reliable data on either the recreational fishery or the First Nations traditional, food, social and ceremonial fishery, saying:

It is important to highlight that this indicator does not consider recreational or traditional fishing. The importance of this industry is notable and an oil spill could damage the recreational fishing stock as well. However, the absence of comparable data and the fact that this study is restricted to federal and international data, and some provincial data from Quebec and Ontario for commercial fisheries, limits the ability to include recreational fishing… Nevertheless, as an absolute index, it will provide an overall vulnerability in the event of an oil spill.

The ongoing impact of cutbacks at Fisheries and Oceans has had a continuing impact on the northwest, especially in the controversial halibut recreational fishery, where DFO has admitted that it is basically guessing the size of each year’s recreational halibut catch.

Tourism

Genivar also notes that lack of reliable data on the effect on a oil spill on tourism. The consultants go so far as to say one of the indicators they will use to measure the effect of any oil spill on tourism would come from “data extracted from the 2011 National Household Survey at the census division level and the accommodation and food services data will be used.”

The “National Household Survey” is also known as the long form census and it is the National Household Survey that the Harper government made voluntary rather mandatory, decreasing the reliability of the data. Global News recently analyzed those who had contributed to the survey and found that it poor people, the very rich and people in low population areas were least likely to fill out the voluntary census—which means the data for northwest BC is likely highly unreliable from the 2011 survey even though “The census divisions in coastal regions will be selected for each of the sub-sectors. This method will express the economic vulnerability of each sub-sector to a potential collapse in tourism following a spill.”

Despite the importance of cruise ship traffic on the west coast, Genivar notes, “In Canada, data for passenger vessels were unavailable.”

It also notes that “this study does not specifically take into account national parks and other landmarks, since their influence on tourism is indirectly included in the tourism employment
intensity index” so that Genivar could create what it calls the Human-Use Resource Index (HRI), even though that index appears to be based on incomplete data.

Commentary: In the tanker study, the District of Kitimat was missing in action

kitimatlogoThe list of participants in the oil spill preparedness and response study released last week by the federal government shows two glaring no shows, the District of Kitimat and Rio Tinto Alcan.
The Haisla Nation and the Gitga’at Nation did provide written submissions to the panel.

The expert panel was set up by the federal government to review “oil handling facilities and ship-source oil spill preparedness and response.” The expert panel was to review the “structure, functionality and the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the system, as well as analyzing the requirements for hazardous and noxious substances, including liquefied natural gas.”

Transport Canada tanker report
Expert panel tanker risk assessment report cover (Transport Canada)

As well as commissioning the Genivar report on the state of oil spill preparedness and consequences, the panel interviewed stakeholders and visited a few key locations, including Port Metro Vancouver.

The panel also invited any interested groups to submit documents or their own views to be taken into consideration.

Among the stakeholders interviewed by the panel were companies and organizations very familiar to Kitimat; Chevron and Shell, main partners in two of the LNG projects; Enbridge, which has proposed the Northern Gateway Pipeline and Kinder Morgan which has proposed expanding the dilbit pipeline on the Lower Mainland. Other stakeholders included Coastal First Nations, the Prince Rupert Port Authority, SMIT Marine and the Vancouver Port Authority.

As well as the Haisla and the Gitga’at, five west coast municipalities submitted their own reports to the tanker panel, both the city and districts of North Vancouver, the city of Richmond, the District of Ucluelet and the District of West Vancouver. San Juan County in Washington State also made a submission to the panel. So did the Prince Rupert and Vancouver Port authorities.

Chevron, Enbridge, Imperial Oil, Kinder Morgan, Pacific Northwest LNG, Seaspan Marine, and the Union of BC Municipalities, among others also submitted their views to the panel.

So why didn’t the District of Kitimat participate? When it came to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review, the mayor and council always maintained their neutrality motion meant that the District would not be an active participant. That was always a short sighted viewpoint. The District should have participated actively in the JRP in such a way as to protect the region’s interests where necessary while remaining neutral. If the District of Kitimat sat out the tanker panel because of the Northern Gateway neutrality policy, that was no excuse, because the expert panel’s mandate specifically included LNG.

Tanker traffic is a potential threat to the San Juan Islands (the Gulf Islands on the American side of the border). It is astounding that San Juan County would think that the Canadian tanker panel was important enough to make a submission and the District of Kitimat did not.

RTA logoWhat about Rio Tinto Alcan? Kitimat has been a private port for 60 years, run first by Alcan and then by Rio Tinto Alcan. Why wasn’t RTA asked to participate as a stakeholder? Why didn’t RTA make a submission? Those who are pushing the Northern Gateway terminal always like to say that tankers have been calling at Kitimat for those 60 years. That is true. Of course, none of those tankers have been the Very Large Crude Carriers proposed by Northern Gateway. However, those 60 years means that RTA has the expertise on the Port of Kitimat and Douglas Channel. RTA probably has important data that could have helped both the expert panel and Genivar (which pointed out the paucity of data on small and medium sized tankers). In not participating in the tanker panel submissions and possibly not providing valuable data on Douglas Channel, RTA neglected its social responsibility both to the community of Kitimat and the rest of the province of British Columbia.

Aurora LNG applies to NEB for Grassy Point export licence

CNOOCNexenLogo125Aurora LNG, a partnership headed by Nexen, the Canadian branch of CNOOC, one of China’s largest energy companies, has applied to the National Energy Board for an export licence to ship 24 million tonnes of liquified natural gas over 25 years to Asian customers from Grassy Point near Prince Rupert.

Two Japanese companies, Inpex Corp and JGC are partners with CNNOC in the joint venture.

The application comes just two weeks after the BC government  gave Aurora “the right to pursue long-term access to Crown land” at Grassy Point, which is just south of the border with the Alaska Panhandle.

While the NEB is expected to grant the export licence with little difficulty, the company still has to go through environmental assessment and make a final investment decision.

So far none of the LNG projects in northwestern BC, including three in Kitimat where the NEB has already granted export licences, have been given that final go ahead from the boards of their parent companies. Tne NEB is also considering five other applications for LNG export licences.

At the time BC granted Nexen the potential tenure at Grassy Point, CEO Kevin Reinhart said: “Through project assessment and stakeholder consultation we are committed to examining the potential to build a best-in-class LNG facility – one that creates jobs, delivers lasting economic and social benefits and is developed with the environment top-of-mind.”

According to the BC government news release:

  • The agreement is for the northern part of Grassy Point, which covers 614.9 hectares of land, plus foreshore land equalling 158.7 hectares.

  • Aurora LNG will be examining the viability of constructing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant and export terminal at this location.

  • Under the agreement, Aurora LNG will pay $12 million to the Province upon signing the sole proponent agreement. Another $12 million will be paid by Aurora LNG on, or before, the first anniversary of the agreement, as long as the proponent wants the arrangement to continue.

  • The right to acquire the land for construction or long-term use remains a matter of future negotiations. If the land is acquired by Aurora LNG, the $24 million submitted to government will be subtracted from the final sale price.

Nexen’s plans include a natural gas liquefaction plant, LNG storage and a marine terminal to handle LNG tankers capable of carrying between 210,000 and 217,000 cubic metres of gas. The initial plans call for two trains with a possibility of two more if conditions in the always volatile LNG market warrant.

Nexen is in talks with a number of “major pipeline providers” and no pipeline route has been announced.

It is expected the first LNG shipment from Grassy Point would occur sometime between 2021 and 2023.

Japan Petroleum approves LNG import facility in Fukushima Prefecture

Media reports say that Japan Petroleum Exploration (Japex) has given final investment approval to build a liquified natural gas receiving terminal and storage facility  at the Soma Port in Shinchi, Fukushima Prefecture to receive Canadian LNG, probably from Prince Rupert.

The company will also build a 40 kilometre connecting pipeline to move the natural gas to Japex’s main pipeline which will then connect with natural gas storage facilities in  Natori in Miyagi Prefecture and another facility in Niigata Prefecture on the Sea of Japan.

The Soma port was severely damaged in the March, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

“We want to help areas affected by the disaster to create employment and secure a stable supply of energy,” Shoichi Ishii, Japex senior managing director,  was quoted by the Japanese newspaper Ashai Shimbum at a news conference on Nov. 27.

Japex owns 10 per cent of the planned Petronas LNG export terminal at Prince Rupert, which is expected to have an annual capacity of 12 million metric tons.

Japex plans to import 1.2 million tonnes of LNG made from  Canadian shale gas a year starting in 2018. The construction of the new LNG terminal in Shinchi, is scheduled for completion in 2017 and will start in 2014, at a cost of $587 million US.

The reports say with LNG import facilities on both the east and west coasts, that means Japan is ensuring a stable supply of LNG. If an earthquake or tsunami hits one coast, the other would likely be spared.

Ashai Shimbum also reports that Japex is considering building at an LNG fired power plant near the planned import and storage facilities to sell power to the struggling and controversial Tokyo Electric Power Co, owner of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture that was destroyed in the March, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

The newspaper says that because Japex does not have experience operating a thermal plant, it intends to work with other companies to run the new powerhouse.

Related The Australian Fukushima fallout fuels LNG demand

 

 

Analysis: The Harper government’s week of history-making blunders

The Panama registered bulk carrier  Azuma Phoenix is seen tied up at Kitimat harbour seen on the afternoon of Jan 9, 201. In March 2013. the federal government announced it was making the private port of Kitimat into a public port,  (Robin Rowland)
The Panama registered bulk carrier Azuma Phoenix is seen tied up at Kitimat harbour on the afternoon of Jan 9, 2012. In March 2013. the federal government announced it was making the private port of Kitimat into a public port. (Robin Rowland)

When the story of the Stephen Harper government is told, historians will say that the week of March 17 to 23, 2013, is remembered, not for the release of a lacklustre federal budget, but for day after day of political blunders that undermined Harper’s goal of making a Canada what the Conservatives call a resource superpower.

It was a week where spin overcame substance and spun out of control.

The Conservative government’s aim was, apparently, to increase support for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project with a spin campaign aimed at moving the middle ground in British Columbia from anti-project to pro-project and at the same time launching a divide and conquer strategy aimed at BC and Alberta First Nations.

It all backfired. If on Monday, March 17, 2013, the troubled and controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway project was on the sick list, by Friday, March 23, the Enbridge pipeline and tanker scheme was added to the Do Not Resuscitate list, all thanks to political arrogance, blindfolded spin and bureaucratic incompetence. The standard boogeymen for conservative media in Canada (who always add the same sentence to their stories on the Northern Gateway) “First Nations and environmentalists who oppose the project” had nothing to do with it.

Stephen Harper has tight control of his party and the government, and in this case the billion bucks stop at the Prime Minister’s Office. He has only himself to blame.

All of this happened on the northern coast of British Columbia, far out of range of the radar of the national media and the Ottawa pundit class (most of whom, it must be admitted, were locked up in an old railway station in the nation’s capital, trying interpret Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s spreadsheets).

The story begins early on that Monday morning, at my home base in Kitimat, BC, the proposed terminal for Northern Gateway, when a news release pops into my e-mail box, advising that Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver would be in nearby Terrace early on Tuesday morning for an announcement and photo op.

I started making calls, trying to find out if anyone in Kitimat knew about Oliver’s visit to Terrace and if the minister planned to come to Kitimat.

Visitors to Kitimat

I made those calls because in the past two years, Kitimat has seen a parade of visitors checking out the town and the port’s industrial and transportation potential. The visitors range from members of the BC provincial Liberal cabinet to the staff of the Chinese consulate in Vancouver to top executives of some of the world’s major transnational corporations (and not just in the energy sector). Most of these visits, which usually include meetings with the District of Kitimat Council and District senior staff as well as separate meetings with the Council of the Haisla Nation, are usually considered confidential. There are no photo ops or news conferences. If the news of a visit is made public, (not all are), those visits are usually noted, after the fact, by Mayor Joanne Monaghan at the next public council meeting.

It was quickly clear from my calls that no one in an official capacity in Kitimat knew that, by the next morning, Oliver would be Terrace, 60 kilometres up Highway 37. No meetings in Kitimat, on or off the record, were scheduled with the Minister of Natural Resources who has been talking about Kitimat ever since he was appointed to the Harper cabinet.

I was skeptical about that afternoon’s announcement/photo op in Vancouver by Transport Minister Denis Lebel and Oliver about the “world class” tanker monitoring.

After all, there had been Canadian Coast Guard cutbacks on the northwest coast even before Stephen Harper got his majority government. The inadequacy of oil spill response on the British Columbia coast had been condemned both by  former Auditor General Sheila Fraser and in the United States Senate. The government stubbornly closed and dismantled the Kitsilano Coast Guard station. It’s proposing that ocean traffic control for the Port of Vancouver be done remotely from Victoria,  with fixed cameras dotted around the harbour.  Leaving controllers in Vancouver would, of course, be the best solution, but they must be sacrificed (along with any ship that get’s into trouble in the future, on the altar of a balanced budget).

The part of the announcement that said there would be increased air surveillance is nothing more than a joke (or spin intended just for the Conservative base in Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Toronto suburbs,that is not anyone familiar with BC coastal waters). Currently the Transport Canada surveillance aircraft are used on the coasts to look for vessels that are illegally dumping bilge or oil off shore. As CBC’s Paul Hunter reported in 2010, Transport Canada aircraft were used after the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster to map where the oil was going after it erupted from the Deepwater Horizon. 

Given the stormy weather on the west coast (when Coast Guard radio frequently warns of “hurricane force winds”) it is highly unlikely that the surveillance aircraft would even be flying in the conditions that could cause a major tanker disaster. Aerial surveillance, even in good weather, will never prevent a tanker disaster caused by human error.

I got my first chance to look at the Transport Canada website in late afternoon and that’s when a seemingly innocuous section made me sit up and say “what is going on?” (I actually said something much stronger).

Public port

Public port designations: More ports will be designated for traffic control measures, starting with Kitimat.

(Transport Canada actually spelled the name wrong—it has since been fixed—as you can see in this screen grab).

Screengrab from Transport Canada website

Kitimat has been one of the few private ports in Canada since the Alcan smelter was built and the town founded 60 years ago (the 60th anniversary of the incorporation of the District of Kitimat is March 31, 2013).

The reasons for the designation of Kitimat as a private port go back to a complicated deal between the province of British Columbia and Alcan in the late 1940s as the two were negotiating about electrical power, the aluminum smelter, the building of the town and the harbour.

For 60 years, Alcan, later Rio Tinto Alcan, built, paid for and operated the port as a private sector venture. For a time, additional docks were also operated by Eurocan and Methanex. After Eurocan closed its Kitimat operation that dock was purchased by the parent company Rio Tinto. The Methanex dock was purchased by Royal Dutch Shell last year for its proposed LNG operation.

The announcement that Kitimat was to become a public port was also something that the national media would not recognize as significant unless they are familiar with the history of the port. That history is known only to current and former residents of Kitimat and managers at Rio Tinto Alcan.

The port announcement came so much out of left field; so to speak, that I had doubts it was accurate. In other words, I couldn’t believe it. I went to Monday evening’s meeting of District of Kitimat Council and at the break between the open and in-camera sessions, I asked council members if they had heard about Kitimat being redesignated a public port. The members of the district council were as surprised as I had been.

Back from the council meeting, I checked the Transport Canada news release and backgrounders. I also checked the online version of Bill C-57, the enabling act for the changes announced earlier that day. There was no mention of Kitimat in Bill C-57.

Harper government outlines new tanker safety measures for west coast

Confirmation

Tuesday morning I drove to Terrace for Joe Oliver’s 9 am photo op and the announcement at Northwest Community College (NWCC) that the government had appointed Douglas Eyford as a special envoy to First Nations for energy projects, an attempt on the surface to try and get First Nations onside for the pipeline projects, an appointment seen by some First Nations leaders as an attempt by the Harper government to divide and conquer.

As an on site reporter, I got to ask Oliver two questions before the news conference went to the national media on the phones.

In answer to my first question, Oliver confirmed that the federal government had decided to make Kitimat a public port, saying in his first sentence: “What the purpose is to make sure that the absolute highest standards of marine safety apply in the port of Kitimat.” He then returned to message track saying, “we have as I announced yesterday and I had spoken about before at the port of Vancouver we have an extremely robust marine safety regime in place but we want to make sure that as resource development continues and as technology improves, we are at the world class level. As I also mentioned there has never been off the coast of British Columbia a major tanker spill and we want to keep that perfect record.”

For my second question, I asked Oliver if he planned to visit Kitimat.

He replied. “Not in this particular visit, I have to get back [to Ottawa] There’s a budget coming and I have to be in the House for that but I certainly expect to be going up there.”

The question may not have registered with the national media on the conference call. For the local reporters and leaders in the room at Waap Galts’ap, the long house at Terrace’s Northwest Community College, everyone knew that Kitimat had been snubbed.

Oliver confirms Kitimat to become a public port

Back in Kitimat, I sent an e-mail to Colleen Nyce, the local spokesperson for Rio Tinto Alcan noting that Joe Oliver had confirmed that the federal government intended to make the RTA-run port a public port. I asked if RTA had been consulted and if the company had any comment.

Nyce replied that she was not aware of the announcement and promised to “look into this on our end.” I am now told by sources that it is believed that my inquiry to Nyce was the first time Rio Tinto Alcan, one of Canada’s biggest resource companies, had heard that the federal government was taking over its port.

The next day, Kitimat Mayor Joanne Monaghan told local TV news on CFTK the Kitimat community was never consulted about the decision and she added that she still hadn’t been able to get anyone with the federal government to tell her more about the plan.

Who pays for the navigation aids?

Meanwhile, new questions were being raised in Kitimat about two other parts of the Monday announcement.

New and modified aids to navigation: The CCG will ensure that a system of aids to navigation comprised of buoys, lights and other devices to warn of obstructions and to mark the location of preferred shipping routes is installed and maintained.
Modern navigation system: The CCG will develop options for enhancing Canada’s current navigation system (e.g. aids to navigation, hydrographic charts, etc) by fall 2013 for government consideration.

Since its first public meeting in Kitimat, in documents filed with the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel, in public statements and advertising, Enbridge has been saying for at least the past four years that the company would pay for all the needed upgrades to aids to navigation on Douglas Channel, Wright Sound and other areas for its tanker traffic. It is estimated that those navigation upgrades would cost millions of dollars.

Now days before a federal budget that Jim Flaherty had already telegraphed as emphasizing restraint, it appeared that the Harper government, in its desperation to get approval for energy exports, was going to take over funding for the navigation upgrades from the private sector and hand the bill to the Canadian taxpayer.

Kitimat harbour

RTA not consulted

On Thursday morning, I received an e-mail from Colleen Nyce with a Rio Tinto Alcan statement, noting:

This announcement was not discussed with Rio Tinto Alcan in advance. We are endeavoring to have meetings with the federal government to gain clarity on this announcement as it specifically relates to our operations in Kitimat.

Nyce also gave a similar statement to CFTK and other media. A Francophone RTA spokesperson in Quebec did the same for Radio Canada.

On Friday morning, Mayor Monaghan told Andrew Kurjata on CBC’s Daybreak North that she had had at that time no response to phone calls and e-mails asking for clarification of the announcement. Monaghan also told CBC that Kitimat’s development officer Rose Klukas had tried to “get an audience with minister and had been unable to.” (One reason may be that Oliver’s staff was busy. They ordered NWCC staff to rearrange the usual layout of the chairs at Waap Galts’ap, the long house, to get a better background for the TV cameras for Oliver’s statement).

Joe Oliver
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (front far right) answers questions after his news conference at the Northwest Community College Long House, March 19, 2013. (Robin Rowland)

Monaghan told Kurjata, “I feel like it’s a slap in the face because we’re always being told that we’re the instrument for the whole world right now because Kitimat is supposed to be the capital of the economy right now. So I thought we’d have a little more clout by now and they’d at least tell us they were going to do this. There was absolutely no consultation whatsoever.”

By Friday afternoon, five days after the announcement, Transport Canada officials finally returned the calls from Mayor Monaghan and Rose Klukas promising to consult Kitimat officials in the future.

Monaghan said that Transport Canada told her that it would take at least one year because the change from a private port to a public port requires a change in legislation.

Transport Canada is now promising “extensive public and stakeholder consultation will occur before the legislation is changed,” the mayor was told.

On this Mayor Monaghan commented, “It seems to me that now they want to do consultation….sort of like closing the barn door after all of the cows got out!”

Transport Canada promises consultation on Kitimat port five days after announcement it will become public

 

Blunder after blunder after blunder

Blunder No 1. Pulling the rug out from Northern Gateway

Joe Oliver and the Harper government sent a strong political signal to Kitimat on Tuesday; (to paraphrase an old movie) your little town doesn’t amount of a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Not that attitude is new for the people of Kitimat. The Northern Gateway Joint Review panel snubbed the town, bypassing Kitimat for Prince George and Prince Rupert for the current questioning hearings. Publisher David Black has been touting a refinery 25 kilometres north of Kitimat to refine the bitumen, but has never bothered to meet the people of Kitimat.

There are a tiny handful of people in Kitimat openly in favour of the Northern Gateway project. A significant minority are on the fence and some perhaps leaning toward acceptance of the project. There is strong opposition and many with a wait and see attitude. (Those in favour will usually only speak on background, and then when you talk to them most of those “in favour” have lists of conditions. If BC Premier Christy Clark has five conditions, many of these people have a dozen or more).

Oliver was speaking in Terrace, 60 kilometres from Kitimat. It is about a 40 to 45 minute drive to Kitimat over a beautiful stretch of highway, with views of lakes, rivers and mountains.

Scenic Highway 37 is the route to the main location not only for the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline but three liquefied natural gas projects, not to mention David Black’s proposed refinery half way between Terrace and Kitimat.

Why wouldn’t Kitimat be a must stop on the schedule for the Minister of Natural Resources? In Terrace, Oliver declared that Kitimat was to become a public port, run by the federal government. Although technically that would be the responsibility of Denis Lebel, the Minister of Transport, one has to wonder why the Minister of Natural Resources would not want to see the port that is supposedly vital to Canada’s economy? You have to ask why he didn’t want to meet the representatives of the Haisla Nation, the staff and council of the District of Kitimat and local business leaders?

Oliver has been going across Canada, the United States and to foreign countries promoting pipelines and tanker traffic, pipelines that would terminate at Kitimat and tankers that would send either bitumen or liquefied natural gas to customers in Asia.

Yet the Minister of Natural Resources is too important, too busy to take a few hours out of his schedule, while he is in the region,  to actually visit the town he has been talking about for years.

He told me that he had to be in Ottawa for the budget. Really? The budget is always the finance minister’s show and tell (with a little help from whomever the Prime Minister is at the time). On budget day, Oliver would have been nothing more than a background extra whenever the television cameras “dipped in” on the House of Commons, between stories from reporters and experts who had been in the budget lockup.

According to the time code on my video camera, Oliver’s news conference wrapped at 9:50 a.m., which certainly gave the minister and his staff plenty of time to drive to Kitimat, meet with the representatives of the District, the Haisla Nation and the Chamber of Commerce and still get to Vancouver for a late flight back to Ontario.

On Tuesday, Joe Oliver’s snub pulled the political rug out from under the Northern Gateway supporters and fence sitters in Kitimat. Oliver’s snub showed those few people in Kitimat that if they do go out on a limb to support the Northern Gateway project, the Conservatives would saw off that limb so it can be used as a good background prop for a photo op.

Prince Rupert, Terrace and Smithers councils have all voted against the Northern Gateway project. Kitimat Council, despite some clear divisions, has maintained a position of absolute neutrality.  Kitimat Council will continue to be officially neutral until after the Joint Review report, but this week you could hear the air slowly leaking out of the neutrality balloon.

Oliver may still believe, as he has frequently said, that the only people who oppose Northern Gateway are dangerous radicals paid by foreign foundations.

What he did on Tuesday was to make the opposition to Northern Gateway in Kitimat into an even more solid majority across the political spectrum.

Blunder No 2. Rio Tinto Alcan

It doesn’t do much for the credibility of a minister of natural resources to thoroughly piss off, for no good reason, the world’s second largest mining and smelting conglomerate, Rio Tinto. But that’s just what Joe Oliver did this week.

I am not one to usually have much sympathy with rich, giant, transnational corporations.

But look at this way, over the past 60 years Alcan and now Rio Tinto Alcan have invested millions upon millions of dollars in building and maintaining the Kitimat smelter and the port of Kitimat. RTA is now completing the $3.3 billion Kitimat Modernization Project. Then without notice, or consultation, the Conservative government—the Conservative government—announces it is going to take over RTA’s port operations. What’s more, if what Transport Canada told Mayor Joanne Monaghan is correct, the federal government is going to start charging RTA fees to use the port it has built and operated for 60 years.

Construction at Rio Tinto Alcan

There are problems between the people of Kitimat and RTA to be sure; the closing of the town’s only beach last summer was one problem (a problem that was eventually resolved.)

Too often RTA’s London headquarters acts like it is still the nineteenth century and the senior executives are like British colonialists dictating to the far reaches of the Empire on what do to do.

No matter what you think of RTA, it boggles the mind, whether you are right wing, left wing or mushy middle, that the federal government simply issues a press release–a press release– with not even a phone call, not even a visit (even to corporate headquarters) saying “Hey RTA, we’re taking over.”

There’s one thing that you can be sure of, Rio Tinto Alcan’s lobbyists are going to be earning their fees in the coming weeks.

(One more point, even if there wasn’t a single pipeline project planned for Kitimat you would think that the Minister of Natural Resources would want to see what is currently the largest and most expensive construction project in Canada, a project that comes under his area of political responsibility).

Blunder No 3. The Haisla Nation

Douglas Channel is in the traditional territory of the Haisla Nation. The KM LNG project at Bish Cove is on Haisla Reserve No. 6  legally designated an industrial development by the federal government. Any changes to that project and to the Kitimat waterfront as a whole will require intensive negotiations with the Haisla Nation.

Blunder No 4. The state of Canadian democracy

It took five days, from the time of the minister’s news conference on Monday until Friday afternoon, for officials in Transport Canada to return phone calls from Mayor Joanne Monaghan and Rose Klukas, to explain what was going to happen to the Port of Kitimat.

This week was yet another example of the decay of Canadian democracy under Stephen Harper. Executives from Tokyo to Houston to the City of London quickly return phone calls from the District of Kitimat, after all Kitimat is where the economic action is supposed to be. At the same time, the federal government doesn’t return those calls, it shows that something really is rotten in our state.

Blunder No 5. LNG

There are three liquefied natural gas projects slated for Kitimat harbour, the Chevron-Apache partnership in KM LNG, now under construction at Bish Cove; the Royal Dutch Shell project based on the old Methanex site and the barge based BC LNG partnership that will work out of North Cove.

None of these projects have had the final go ahead from the respective company board of directors. So has the federal government thrown the proverbial monkey wrench into these projects? Will making Kitimat a public port to promote Enbridge, help or hinder the LNG projects? Did the Ministry of Natural Resources even consider the LNG projects when they made the decision along with Transport Canada to take over the port?

And then there’s…..

Kitimat has a marina shortage, especially since RTA closed the Moon Bay Marina. The only one left, the MK Bay Marina, which is straining from overcapacity, is owned by the Kitimat-Stikine Regional District. That means there will be another level of government in any talks and decisions on the future of the Kitimat harbour. There are also the controversial raw log exports from nearby Minette Bay.

Although Transport Canada has promised “extensive public and stakeholder consultation,” one has to wonder how much input will be allowed for the residents of Kitimat and region, especially the guiding and tourism industries as well as recreational boaters. After all, the Harper government is determined to make Kitimat an export port for Alberta and the experience of the past couple of years has shown that people of northwest count for little in that process. Just look at the Northern Gateway Joint Review, which more and more people here say has no credibility.

Big blunder or more of the same?

I’ve listed five big blunders that are the result of the decision by the Harper government to turn Kitimat into a public port.

Are they really blunders or just more of the same policies we’ve seen from Stephen Harper since he became a majority prime minister?

This is a government that has muzzled scientific research and the exchange of scientific ideas. The minister who was in the northwest last week, who has demonized respect for the environment, is now squeezing the words “science” and “environment” anywhere into any message track or speech anyway he can.

The government closes the busiest and most effective coast guard station at Kitsilano without consulting a single municipal or provincial official in British Columbia. The government closes two of Canada’s crown jewels of scientific research, the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario and the Polar Environmental Research Laboratory in Nunavut. Keeping the coast guard station and the two science projects open and funded would be a drop in the deficit bucket at a time that the government is spending countless millions of taxpayers’ dollars in promoting itself on every television channel in Canada.

That’s just the point. Joe Oliver’s fly-in, fly-out trip to Terrace was not supposed to have any substance. Changing the chairs at the Waap Galts’ap long house showed that it was more important to the Harper government to have some northwest coast wall art behind Joe Oliver for his photo op than it was to engage meaningfully with the northwest, including major corporations, First Nations and local civic and business leaders.

Joe Oliver’s visit to Terrace was an example of government by reality television. The decision to change the private port of Kitimat into a public port was another example of Harper’s government by decree without consulting a single stakeholder. The problem is, of course, that for decades to come, it will be everyone in northwest British Columbia who will be paying for those 30 second sound bites I recorded on Tuesday.


Epilogue: Alcan’s legacy for the socialist Prime Minister, Stephen Harper

If an NDP or Liberal government had done what Harper and Oliver did on Monday, every conservative MP, every conservative pundit, every conservative media outlet in Canada would be  hoarse from screaming about the danger from the socialists to the Canadian economy.

That brings us to the legacy left by R. E. Powell who was president of Alcan in the 1940s and 50s as the company was building the Kitimat project.

As Global Mission, the company’s official history, relates, in 1951, Alcan signed an agreement with the British Columbia provincial government, that “called upon the company to risk a huge investment, without any government subsidy or financial backing and without any assured market for its product.”

According to the book, Powell sought to anticipate any future problems, given the tenor of the times, the possible or even likely nationalization of the smelter and the hydro-electric project.

So Powell insisted that the contract signed between Alcan and the province include preliminary clauses acknowledging that Alcan was paying for Kitimat without a single cent from the government:

Whereas the government is unwilling to provide and risk the very large amounts of money required to develop those water powers to produce power for which no market now exists or can be foreseen except through the construction of the facilities for the production of aluminum in the vicinity and….

Whereas the construction of the aluminum plant at or near the site of the said waterpower would accomplish without risk or to the GOVERNMENT the development power, the establishment of a permanent industry and the new of population and….

(Government in all caps in the original)

…the parties hereto agree as follows (the agreement, water licence and land permit)

Powell is quoted in the book as saying:

I asked the political leaders of BC if the government would develop the power and sell the energy to Alcan and they refused. We had to do it ourselves. Someday, perhaps, some politician will try to nationalize that power and grab it for the state. I will be dead and gone but some of you or your successors at Alcan may be here, and I hope the clauses in the agreement, approved by the solemn vote of the BC legislature, will give those future socialists good reason to pause and reflect.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the federal government had very little to do with the Kitimat project. With the declaration that Kitimat will be a public port, the federal government comes to the party 60 years late. But one has to wonder if the late Alcan president, R.E. Powell, ever considered that the “future socialists” he hoped would “pause and reflect” would be members of Canada’s Conservative party, Stephen Harper, Joe Oliver and Denis Lebel?