11/25/2013 05:39 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 05:59 EST

It's Time to Agree, the Great Bear Is No Place for Pipelines and Oil Tankers

If Premier Christy Clark opened the door to the Enbridge Northern Gateway oil pipeline with an announcement about a deal with Alberta, then for the sake of B.C. -- and Canada --let's make sure that door stays firmly shut.

The Great Bear is a truly unique place. Recovering populations of humpbacks depend on its waters. Spirit bears and Pacific coastal wolves, which live nowhere else on Earth, fish in its pristine salmon rivers. And one of the world's leading examples of a truly sustainable local economy thrives in its communities.

This unique economic model, underpinned by the wealth of the ecosystem, is no accident. Over the past decade this new coastal economy has been carefully crafted by the Coastal First Nations. It is, in part, the result of a number of agreements between them and the governments of both B.C. and Canada.

All of this is put at risk by the proposition of Enbridge's Northern Gateway oil pipeline and super tankers shipping diluted bitumen through Hecate Strait, one of the world's most dangerous shipping routes.

We know what can happen and we've seen it before. The crude oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez contaminated 2,400 kilometers of Alaska's coastline. It killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds and other wildlife. But it was the disappearance of the herring and the crab fisheries -- the enduring loss of the ocean's bounty -- that has crippled coastal communities and deprived a generation of its livelihoods.

The loss of the herring fishery alone cost the economy $400 million. More than 20 years later, tar balls are still exposed by winter storms. Similarly, in southwest Michigan, a stone's throw from our border, the pipeline spill that dumped more than 800,000 barrels of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River is still being cleaned up, three years later. It's cost Enbridge more than a billion dollars but damages to the ecosystem and communities are still being tallied.

A recent study of oil spill emergency prevention, preparedness and response (EPPR) commissioned by the Province of B.C. showed that only three or four per cent of a 10-thousand-tonne oil spill on the north coast would be recovered after five days.

Oddly, the provincial government found reason for hope in the report's findings. It "lays the foundation for building a world-class marine spill response and preparedness system," the province noted.

No one would argue against being better prepared for oil spills. But, when it comes to protecting the future of the Great Bear, these words are meaningless. The question is not whether we can achieve so-called world-class preparedness. But rather, is there any level of preparation that makes transporting diluted bitumen through the coastal waters of the Great Bear region an acceptable risk? The answer is "no."

There are emergencies of a scale and kind that exceed even "world-class" preparations. World-class "success" of a tanker oil spill clean-up operation is recovering about 15 per cent of the oil. Yet, even that unsatisfactory result is only possible because, in most cases, the spilled oil floats. Heavier oils, such as bitumen, that drift below the waves cannot be tracked, much less recovered. The technology to clean up such significant volumes of sunken oil simply does not exist.

The jobs and communities of the Great Bear would be devastated by such a spill, just as those in Michigan and Alaska were. What's more, Canada and the world would lose one of the richest and most spectacular places on this planet.

So, as our governments promise to build "world-class" emergency preparedness, let's tell them we support their aspiration and that we'll watch their progress with great interest. But when they claim that "world-class" preparations will make the Great Bear Sea safe for shipping bitumen by tanker, let's not be fooled. And let's remind our leaders of what the people of B.C. and Coastal First Nations have said loudly and clearly: The Great Bear is not, and never will be, the place for oil pipelines or tankers.

The time to speak up is now. Because when Canadians show they care, Canada's leaders must listen. Add your name: