Black Bile from the North

Black Bile from the North

  • By: Ted Williams
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Foreign interests want to gouge the world’s dirtiest oil from under Canada’s vast boreal forest and pipe it through some of North America’s most important fish and wildlife habitat.

Back when our neighbor to the north was a proud, sovereign nation Winston Churchill proclaimed, “There are no limits to the majestic future which lies before the mighty expanse of Canada with its virile, aspiring, cultured, and generous-hearted people.”

But that’s all changed. Now Canada is run by Americans—not just any Americans, but “radical environmentalists,” “jet-setting celebrities” and “champagne socialists [sic]” plotting to “hijack our [Canada’s] regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda [i.e.,] no forestry, no mining, no oil, no gas, no more hydroelectric dams.” All this according to Joe Oliver, Canada’s energy minister. And he is backed up by his boss—Canada’s ultra-conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, who explains that US interests want to render Canada “one giant national park.”

Harper and his energy minister are standing like sandbags against a tsunami of opposition from Canada’s first nations, tourism and labor leaders, anglers, hunters, guides, commercial fishermen and environmentalists to a project called the Northern Gateway. While the naysayers may be Canadians, they’re being incited and funded by scheming Yankees, at least according to the Harper administration.

But it’s not like the Northern Gateway has a whole lot to do with Canada other than poisoning and ripping apart her wild lands and waters. Funded by 10 foreign companies, it is a $5.5- to $6.6-billion proposed pipeline to run tar-sand oil from northeastern Alberta 730 miles to a yet-to-be-built deepwater port in Kitimat, British Columbia, and thence by super tanker mostly to China. It will be double-barreled. One pipe will run east to Alberta, daily carrying 8.2 million gallons of condensate, a toxic natural-gas byproduct used to dilute sticky tar-sand oil or “bitumen” so that it can be made to flow. The other pipe will daily transport 22 million gallons of “DilBit” (short for “diluted bitumen”) west to Kitimat. The route runs across or under wild, currently unfragmented wildlife habitat, pristine mountain ranges, territories claimed by 20 first nations, and about 1,000 rivers and streams, most rich in trout, salmon and steelhead.

To whatever degree Canadian angst is being fomented by Americans, it’s not as if Americans don’t have reason for concern or a right to voice that concern. After all, fish and wildlife don’t recognize international boundaries. Momentarily setting aside the grave dangers of DilBit transport, no fossil-fuel extraction is more environmentally ruinous than strip mining tar sands. “Ecocide,” it’s being called. Waste products include hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic goop, greenhouse gases, boreal forest, fish, wildlife, wetlands, rivers, lakes and people.

Native ecosystems are bulldozed off the face of the earth, tar sand exposed and steam blasted into it to liquefy the bitumen enough so that it can be pumped out. Currently at least 260 square miles of boreal forest have been razed. And almost 70 square miles of vile-smelling, sometimes permeable tailing ponds hold about 250 billion gallons of waste so poisonous that propane cannons are deployed in a frequently vain attempt to frighten away water birds. Keeping Asia supplied with a steady fix of DilBit via the Northern Gateway would require that this damage be expanded geometrically and indefinitely over the 54,000-square-mile tar-sands deposit, an area the size of Florida.

Prime Minister Harper has promised that Canada will reduce greenhouse gas emissions 65 percent by 2050. But bitumen extraction, requiring enormous amounts of gas-heated water, spikes the planet’s carbon load even as it destroys its carbon-sequestering potential (trees and peat). Largely because of the gas required to make the steam, tar-sands oil produces three times as much greenhouse gas per refined gallon as conventional crude. In the words of climate scientist James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, tar-sands extraction is a “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”

In addition to its role as an important carbon sink, North America’s boreal forest sustains some of our rarest mammals (wolverines and woodland caribou, for example) and roughly 30 percent of the continent’s land birds—at least 215 species that winter south of Canada, then move north along all four flyways, converging in the boreal forest to feed, rest and nest. At least three million gallons of bitumen waste leaks daily into that environment, poisoning first-nation aboriginals, and fish and wildlife. Endangered whooping cranes, which nest near the tar-sands strip mines, have been showing up in the US with black stains on their feathers.

The dangers only begin with tar-sands strip mining. DilBit contains 15 to 20 times as much acid as conventional crude oil, five to 10 times as much sulfur, and higher concentrations of chloride salts and abrasive quartz sand particles. So, even as it rots pipes, it moves through them like liquid sandpaper. What’s more, it is so viscous that it has to be heated and piped under high pressure. So major DilBit leaks are routine. That’s why Alberta’s pipeline system experiences 16 times as many spills due to internal damage as the US system.

In April 2011 a pipeline owned by Plains Midstream Canada leaked 1.2 million gallons of DilBit into a wetland near Alberta’s Peace River, sickening school kids in the first-nation community of Little Buffalo. That’s the same pipeline that spiked Slave Lake with 329,280 gallons of DilBit in 2006. In July 2010 Enbridge Energy Company created the biggest oil spill in Midwest history when its compromised pipeline sent a million gallons of DilBit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River system. In July 2011 an ExxonMobil pipeline fouled the Yellowstone River in Montana with 42,000 gallons of DilBit.

As horrific as crude-oil spills can be, at least skimmers and booms can lessen damage to fish, wildlife and people. But when its condensate portion evaporates DilBit turns to sticky, heavy tar that coats stream bottoms. As a result DilBit-fouled fish habitat is difficult or impossible to rehabilitate, and cleanup is especially expensive. Removal of just the visible evidence of the Kalamazoo River spill is expected to cost at least $700 million.

DilBit contains heavy metals, benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and n-hexane—poisons that can damage central nervous systems of humans, fish and wildlife. Sixty percent of the people living near the Kalamazoo River spill were reported by the Michigan Department of Community Health to suffer neurological, respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms consistent with acute petro-chemical exposure.

Canada used to refine most of its DilBit into synthetic crude oil before exporting it. But now two-thirds of all tar-sands oil piped into the US from Alberta is DilBit (about 25.2 million gallons a year). And according to Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, that figure will increase to 63 million gallons by 2019.

The northern gateway pipeline is to be built by Calgary-based Enbridge Energy Company, the same outfit that brought America the Kalamazoo River disaster. Even for a company heavily invested in DilBit transport, Enbridge has a pitiful record. In January 2009 Enbridge spilled 242,000 gallons of oil in Cheecham, Alberta. In May 2010 Enbridge spilled 63,000 gallons in the Northwest Territories. In September 2010 Enbridge spilled 256,200 gallons in Romeoville, Illinois. In January 2010 Enbridge spilled 126,000 gallons in Neche, North Dakota. From 1999 to 2010 Enbridge experienced 804 “incidents” that fouled land and water with 7.1 million gallons of oil and DilBit.

And Enbridge has sought permits to transport DilBit under higher pressure and through thinner steel than required. Found liable for environmental damages during construction of two parallel pipelines in Wisconsin, it paid $1.1 million in 2009 for flouting wetland-and-waterway protection regulations. Monitors hired by the Wisconsin DNR documented 282 wetland violations and 176 land-disturbance and erosion-control violations near navigable waters and wetlands.

But never has Enbridge attempted to transport DilBit across such dangerous and unforgiving terrain as exists along the 730 miles between the tar sands and Kitimat. The route is prone to earthquakes and landslides. A 2002 landslide disrupted natural-gas service to Kitimat, Terrace and Prince Rupert, costing the local economy $27.5 million. Of the six major landslides that have hit west-central British Columbia since 1978 (five in the past decade) three have severed gas pipelines. And global warming, goosed by tar-sands extraction, appears to be further destabilizing landslide-prone areas.

When and if the DilBit reaches Kitimat the danger isn’t over. At least 200 supertankers a year would have to negotiate the narrow, rock-strewn Douglas Channel, and some would pass through the shallow Hecate Strait, where fierce tidal bores and winds can push waves to heights of 85 feet and which is ranked by Environment Canada as the world’s fourth most dangerous water body. In 2010 Canada’s Auditor General reported that the nation lacked capacity to respond to a major oil spill. So dangerous is the entire British Columbia coastline, in fact, that an informal oil-tanker moratorium, agreed to by the province and the federal government, has been in place since 1972.

Some of the most important fish habitat threatened by the Northern Gateway is within the Fraser and Skeena river systems, respectively the province’s first and second longest rivers and its first and second largest salmon and steelhead producers. The pipeline route would pass under the Stuart and Salmon rivers collected by the Fraser. The Stuart is vital to the system’s troubled sockeye runs; and the Salmon provides critical habitat for the endangered Nechako River white sturgeon.

But the Harper administration has devised a solution to the Northern Gateway’s threat to fish. It plans to excise from the nation’s Fisheries Act the bothersome ban on fish-habitat destruction. The current law prohibits activity that results in the “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.” But the proposed new wording merely prohibits activity that would cause an “adverse effect” to “fish of economic, cultural or ecological value.”

The pending emasculation of the Fisheries Act had been a secret until a retired federal fisheries biologist named Otto Langer was leaked an internal memo. Langer’s March 12, 2012 release to the media reads in part: “The government is totally rewriting the habitat protection provisions of Section 35(1) so as to remove habitat protection out of the Fisheries Act. This is a serious situation and will put Canada back to where we were in the pre-1976 period where Canada had no laws to protect fish habitat and no way to monitor the great industrial expansion that occurred in Canada with the consequential loss of major fish habitat all across Canada…. The lack of mention of ‘habitat’ in the proposed draft law and the number of subjective and ambiguous words inserted into this major amendment will make any enforcement of this new law very difficult. For instance what is a fish of economic, cultural or ecological value? If it has no economic value, can it now be needlessly destroyed?”

Further weakening the act would be numerous exemptions that give the minister of Fisheries and Oceans “or a person prescribed by the regulations” the authority to allow an “adverse effect” on fish that are considered valuable.

On March 22, 2012, 625 of Canada’s most respected scientists sent Harper and his minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Keith Ashfield, a letter deploring the planned attack on the Fisheries Act. “Weakening habitat protections will negatively impact water quality and fisheries across the country, and could undermine Canada’s attempt to maintain international credibility in the environment,” they wrote. The scientists went on to correct the administration’s misconception that there is such a thing as a species without “ecological value.”

Responding to this sort of criticism, Ashfield asserts that “federal fisheries policies designed to protect fish are outdated and unfocused in terms of balancing environmental and economic realities.” An internal briefing note prepared for Ashfield reads as follows: “Some of the largest and most complex natural resource and industrial development projects across the country are affected by Fisheries Act requirements, which are consistently identified as one of the top federal regulatory irritants by stakeholders.”

In other words, special interests lobbying and financing the conservative government would prefer that the Fisheries Act go away. These include the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Business Council of British Columbia, the Canadian Electricity Association, the Canadian Hydropower Association, EnCana Corp., Teck Resources Ltd., The Mining Association of Canada, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the Council of Forest Industries, the Saskatchewan Power Corporation and, of course, Enbridge.

“The Conservative government is systematically dismantling environmental protection and regulation,” Member of Parliament (New Democratic Party) Fin Donnelly told the House of Commons on March 13, 2012. “By eliminating provisions to protect fish habitat, they can push through their agenda of pipelines, oil supertankers, mega-mines and other projects that harm the environment.”

Donnelly doesn’t sound like he’s playing Pinocchio to America’s Stromboli. Nor does Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, who diagnoses the energy minister’s rants as “Canada’s maturity as a dysfunctional petro state,” noting that “oil exporting nations, which run on oil loot instead of taxes, don’t function like real governments because over time they come to represent hydrocarbons the same way plantation economies once championed slaveholders. For the record, foreign-owned bitumen companies taxed by Ottawa now pay a healthy chunk of Oliver’s salary . . . . [He] even calls a foreign funded pipeline designed to send raw unprocessed bitumen to refineries in Imperial China ‘an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest.’”

Appearing no less capable of independent thought are Canada’s aboriginals, virtually united in rejecting attempts by Enbridge to buy them off. In January 2012 the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs presented Prime Minister Harper and provincial premiere Christy Clark with a “Save the Fraser Declaration” calling for a ban on the transportation of crude oil by pipeline and tanker on B.C.’s north and south coast and through the Fraser River watershed.

In February an estimated 600 protesters took to the streets of Prince Rupert, British Columbia in an anti-pipeline rally hosted by the Hartley Bay first nation. And first nationals converged on the tiny community of Nak’azdli for a march in which they chanted: “No, Enbridge. No, Enbridge. No pipelines. No pipelines.” Declared Dakelh elder Charlie Sam: “What part of ‘No’ do they not understand? Our people said no. This is our land. We rely on the water. We rely on the fish that come here every year. When we say no, we mean no.” And Saik’uz chief Jackie Thomas offered this: “Harper has shown his hand. He has made it clear he’s planning to violate our constitutional rights and push the Enbridge pipeline through no matter what the result of the hearings. We’re not going to let that happen . . . . We are sick and tired of this government’s patronizing statements that first nations should just take money from Enbridge and hope for some jobs. Last time I checked, you can’t eat an oil spill.”

Similar demonstrations are ongoing across Alberta and British Columbia. And dozens of first-nation communities have signed a declaration to ban Enbridge from entering their lands.

But one tribal negotiator, Gitxsan Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick, was successfully seduced, selling Enbridge access to Gitxsan land for $7 million. The other Gitxsan chiefs were aghast when they found out about the deal and quickly voted to rescind it. They then issued this statement: “The chiefs who oppose Enbridge remain firm in their resolve that the [Derrick’s] Gitxsan Treaty Society is to be shut down as it is clear that the organization is renegade and has no connection with the Gitxsan chiefs and the community.” Now Derrick’s office is boarded shut.

The northern gateway got a
political boost in January when President Obama, standing up to a Republican effort to push through the Keystone XL pipeline without proper environmental review, placed the project on temporary hold, thereby increasing the incentive for Canada to unload DilBit from its own shore. The Calgary-based company TransCanada had proposed to seize property of US citizens (unlawfully, say legal analysts) in order to run DilBit from the Alberta tar sands 1,661 miles through fragile habitats and earth’s largest underground reservoir to the Texas coast.

But the Northern Gateway project does have one very positive aspect, and it is this: There’s an excellent chance it won’t happen. Canada’s National Energy Board may well turn it down. If this occurs the Harper administration could still force the project, but that would result in two things it very much wants to avoid—damaging the board’s credibility, and escalating the conflict with Canada’s first nations to the point that violence would become a real possibility.

Approval of the Northern Gateway by the National Energy Board would surely bring a first-nation procedural appeal and a lengthy delay. And if the first nations lost that appeal, they could mount a legal challenge on the grounds that they weren’t sufficiently consulted or otherwise accommodated as required by federal law. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has warned the Harper administration that continued failure to adequately fund first nations so that they may “reasonably and meaningfully participate in the consultation and environmental assessment process” will result in a “moderate to high risk” that the courts will find the process unreasonable.

Speaking on another occasion, Winston Churchill called Canada “an example to every country and a pattern for the future of the world.” If the voices of reason and morality (Canadian and even American) prevail against the reckless plan to pipe DilBit across some of North America’s best wildlife habitat and under some of its best fish habitat, Churchill may yet be proven right.

Ted Williams has covered the environment for Fly Rod & Reel for almost three decades.