I participated in a press conference last week in the observation deck on the top floor or one of Vancouver's tallest buildings almost 150 meters (about 500 feet) above ground. This unusual media event was well suited for the unusual situation we have before us.
The Harper government has decided to close the marine traffic control communications terminal in Vancouver. I spoke as an environmentalist along with allies from the unions that represents the effected workers who know first hand how important these emergency services are. As Allan Hughes from the CAW said, "The Coast Guard saves lives."
Closing this centre and moving marine traffic control for Vancouver to the Victoria centre would be unbelievably dangerous and short sighted all by itself. But when you see this closure in the context of increased tanker traffic its beyond belief.
Kinder Morgan plans to build a new pipeline that would bring over 300 tankers a year carrying three times as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. At the same time our prime minister has also seen fit to cut the funding for the environmental emergency response staff which includes the folks in B.C. that coordinate oil spill response. That will now be co-ordinated out of Montreal apparently.
Also amazingly they are about to shut down the Kitsilano coast guard station, so if and when any accident occurs the closest coast guard ship is about 30 minutes away in Richmond. So as our government proposes that we become a "super highway" for oil tankers they are simultaneously reducing both the prevention and the response capacity to deal with an accident in what is already Canada's busiest port. This represents a perfect storm of the conditions that could lead to an oil spill.
To make things worse, what we were doing to begin with already wasn't good enough. The auditor general's office in their fall 2010 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development said we were woefully unprepared to deal with an oil spill. The report's lead author, Scott Vaughan, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, said the following in his comments to the related government committee:
"Every day, on average, at least one oil spill is reported to the Canadian Coast Guard. Fortunately, most are small. However, given the findings of this audit, I am troubled that the government is not ready to respond to a major spill."
In the time since that report was written, we have already seen an increase in tar sands exports through the Vancouver harbour. Kinder Morgan has been quietly increasing exports incrementally since they bought the pipeline, which for many years has primarily served our domestic consumption needs.
In 2011 the the National Energy Board gave Kinder Morgan permission to reduce local refinement and increase exports from 50,000 barrels per day to 75,000 barrels a day.
Before Kinder Morgan, Americas biggest pipeline company, bought the Trans Mountain pipeline it was used primarily for supplying 90 per cent of B.C.'s oil but since day one Kinder Morgan has been trying to convert the pipeline and Vancouver harbour into an export route for unconventional oil from the tar sands.
When they bought the pipeline in 2005 there was about 20 tankers a year in the inlet and most of that was headed to California to be refined and brought back for our consumption. Today over 80 tankers a year pass through the inlet and if there's a new 450,000 barrel a day pipeline along the route of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, that number will grow to between 300 and 400 tankers a year.
Ultimately it is up to us as the residents and stewards of this land to decide if these pipelines should be allowed to go forward. What is clear is less oil being exported across our land and water means less risk. Already it's clear that there is overwhelming opposition to both the Kinder Morgan and Enbridge pipelines.
Even without expanding the pipeline there already is a substantial threat to everyone around the Vancouver harbour. We should be increasing the Coast Guard's capacity to prevent and respond to an accident as laid out in the auditor general's report just to deal with the existing threat posed by supplying our own oil as we move towards reduced demand. That should be a bottom line before we even begin the conversation about new pipelines.
We have partnered with a number of allies to start a letter writing campaign calling on all federal and provincial party leaders to restore funding for the coast guard and oil spill response. Please help us spread the word and stop these irresponsible and dangerous plans. Working together we can stand up to these giant oil corporations and their supporters in our government.