01/31/2012 12:18 EST | Updated 04/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Oil Spills Happen


Canada has one of the best backyards on the planet. Our Boreal Forest is the largest intact forest in the world and spans 1.3 billion acres. In addition to providing a carbon sink for CO2 emissions, the Boreal is home to many species of wolves, caribou, and bears, as well as a major source of fresh water for North America. Canada's backyard includes British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest, one of the last intact temperate rainforests left on the planet with cedar trees over 1,000 years old. Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline threatens both of them.

The geography the proposed route would take begins in Bruderheim, Alberta, travelling west through the Boreal Forest to Kitimat B.C. where the oil would be transported onto super-tankers (the size of large shopping malls) that would have to carefully navigate through the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest to get to open water. Along its journey the extracted tar sands oil would cross rocky mountain terrain prone to landslides as well as over 1,000 rivers and streams, and habitats for many different species, all of which would be devastated by a spill.

The likelihood of a spill along the route is high enough that it can be considered inevitable. The National Energy Board estimates that for every 1,000 km of pipeline, a spill happens on average every 16 years (the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline is 1,172 km), and considering that the Northern Gateway Pipeline would be shipping bitumen, a more corrosive substance than conventional oil, the likelihood of a spill is even greater.

A spill along the route would be catastrophic to the many sensitive ecological areas the pipeline crosses, but even before there is a spill there would great impact upon the local wildlife. The construction of the pipeline would fragment the woodland caribou habitat, making it harder for their already endangered populations to survive. Woodland caribou are found mainly in intact forests untouched by human development that offers shelter from predators and are richer in food sources than younger forests.

In Alberta and British Columbia combined, only a little more than 3,000 woodland caribou remain, and they are listed under the federal "Species at Risk Act." First Nations have tried to force the federal government in court to do more to protect caribou habitat that is increasingly destroyed to make way for tailing ponds and further tar sands extraction. The risk of an oil spill along the route would contaminate caribou food sources and drinking water.

Caribou are far from the only wildlife that the proposed pipeline could have an impact upon. The Kitimat Valley Naturalists issued a report in December that criticized Enbridge's analysis of the impacts on bird species, and noted that a spill would be catastrophic to the Kitimat River estuary and all of the aquatic birds and other wildlife that inhabit the area. A video of their presentation at the hearings is available here.

Furthermore, a spill along any of the many rivers and streams the pipeline crosses, or along the coast, would contaminate fish and aquatic life. The contamination would then work its way up the food chain affecting the whole ecosystem. Should a spill occur along the coast, one of the most affected species would be the celebrated spirit bear. Found only in British Columbia, the spirit bear is a subspecies of black bear that is notable for one tenth of their population being born with a gene that turns their entire coat white. These bears are the official animal of British Columbia and are important to many First Nations, but some estimates have their population as low as 400.

First Nations, concerned citizens, and environmentalists have lobbied for a long time to keep Canada's natural forests and ecosystems intact. While the Boreal Forest is still under threat from logging and expanding tar sands production, and while species like the spirit bear, spotted owl, and woodland caribou are still in danger of a further reduction in population there has been much to celebrate concerning protection of forests and wildlife in Canada.

The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, and the Species at Risk Act all demonstrate Canada's commitment to protecting our land and wildlife. Approving the Northern Gateway pipeline would demonstrate that Canada's priorities now favour the short term benefits of opening up our oil markets to Asia over the lasting long term intrinsic value of keeping our great natural areas and unique wildlife protected so that future generations may appreciate them in the same way that many of us do today.