New Oil Pipeline Invading Canadian Rainforest

Environmental advocates are gearing up for an epic battle against their Canadian oil adversary, Enbridge, in an effort to thwart the construction of a pipeline set to run through British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. 

National Geographic published the expose, “Pipeline Through Paradise,” detailing the controversy surrounding the proposed Northern Gateway project.  Enbridge contested the article’s biased presentation of facts, arguing they have devised a comprehensive safety plan to ensure the environmental integrity of the pipeline project. 

Fortunately for green enthusiasts, Enbridge’s credibility has been compromised by recent reports of leaks and spills along other oil pipelines it maintains.  Rumors have begun to circulate that the pipeline, having failed to gain popular support, may not be built. 

“Rumours and hypotheses implying the pipeline is in real trouble (or should be) [have begun] to spread.  Their image woes now extend to major international press, including National Geographic, ABC News and the New York Times,” wrote blogger Damien Gillis in The Rossland Telegraph.

At stake is the health of the Great Bear Rainforest, which coats 250 miles of western Canada’s coastline with red hemlock, cedar, and spruce trees, and is home to bears, wolves, and whales among other wildlife.  On the table is a proposal for a $5.8 billion, 731-mile long, double-barrelled pipeline to transport crude oil from the Alberta oil sands in central Canada to Kitimat on the west coast. 

Furthermore, in addition to jeopardizing habitats and wildlife health in the Great Bear, the pipeline’s end point – an oil port in Kitimat – will virtually turn Hartley Bay of British Columbia into a “supertanker expressway,” attracting some 220 mega-vessels a year to ferry oil east from Canada’s west coast. 

“This is one of the biggest environmental threats we’ve ever seen,” Ian McAllister, co-founder of Pacific Wild, told Bruce Barcott of National Geographic.  “And it will become one of the biggest environmental battles Canada has ever witnessed. It’s going to be a bare-knuckle fight.”

Second only to the Saudi Arabian oil fields in proven reserves, the abundance of crude oil sands in Alberta puts Canada in contention to be a top supplier in the global arena, if it can successfully access other export markets.  A west coast oil port at Kitimat would open export opportunities in Asia.  Barcott explains: “The Northern Gateway isn’t just a pipeline. It’s Canada’s bid to become a global player in the petroleum market.” 

The pipeline’s eastbound barrel will carry condensate from Kitimat to dilute the crude sands for transport; crude oil will be sent back westward from Alberta in the other barrel.  From Kitimat, fleets of oil tankers will sail through narrow waterways to the Pacific, delivering up to 2.15 million barrels of crude oil per vessel to foreign export markets. 

Several Asian oil refineries, including Sinopec, China’s government-operated oil company, have invested over $100 million along with Canadian oil companies into the pipeline’s permitting and planning processes. 

Conservationists and Canadian First Nations, communities indigenous to the region, are leading the fight to protect the threatened lands and waterways.  

“Last year 61 Canadian First Nations announced they would not allow the proposed pipeline to cross their traditional territory. Whether they have the legal authority to stop the pipeline is hard to say; aboriginal rights remain largely unsettled in British Columbia,” wrote Barcott. 

Memories of the tragic sinking of the Queen of the North ferry in Hartley Bay in 2006, coupled with nightmares from Alaska’s Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, leave many wary of such tanker traffic.  Given the history, Hartley Bay natives know that any human error can be catastrophic, and that the aftermath of such a disaster will be left in their backyards. 

“We don’t want another Exxon Valdez on our shores,” a Kitasoo/Xai’xais wildlife guide and marine planner, Doug Neasloss, told Barcott. 

Enbridge has answered such concerns with public statements of assurance that comprehensive safety measures will be followed at all times, while also stressing the project’s economic incentives for all Canadians. 

Per the company website, “Enbridge is committed to using the best international safety practices…to ensure we avoid accidents and have minimal impact on the environment.”  Only ships that comply with certain safety regulations will be permitted access to the Northern Gateway Terminal. 

Patrick Daniel, Enbridge CEO, stressed: “It is hugely in Canada’s national best interest to have a second outlet for our crude oil,” aside from the United States.  Enbridge expects thousands of jobs to be created for the construction and operation of the pipeline and for northern businesses to profit from the sale of services and supplies during the pipeline’s three year construction period. 

The company has formally offered aboriginals living in areas surrounding the proposed pipeline route equity in the pipeline for their own economic benefit. 

To this proposal Gitga’at council member Cameron Hill told Barcott: “Buy in?  Buy in to what—to selling our way of life? We live off food from the land and sea here. We’ve been taught to respect what we take. That’s sustained us from time immemorial. No amount of money can make us change our position.”

An extensive and robust public review has been set up by the Canadian government to conduct a thorough environmental and safety assessment of the proposed pipeline.  Until conclusions are reached in 2012, conservationists’ and First Nations groups’ will likely remain at odds – whether the rumors of pipeline project abandonment gain momentum or not. 

Photo credit: Ryan McFarland,

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