The province of Alberta is well known as a climate-destroying behemoth. The tar sands developments in the north of that province are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.
Less well known are the ambitions of its neighbouring province, British Columbia. It shares similar fossil fuel reserves and ambitions as Alberta. Vast coal and natural gas reserves are being opened at breakneck speed. Construction is underway or planned for accompanying road, rail, pipeline and supertanker transport routes. Widespread opposition to these plans is growing, but will it spread fast enough to save the province from what amounts to an unprecedented assault on its natural environment and the health and welfare of its citizens?
No to tar sands pipelines and tankers
An unprecedented alliance of environmental organizations and Indigenous communities has come together to stop a proposed 1,200-kilometre dual pipeline across northern British Columbia. Enbridge company says it will spend $5-billion to build it. In a March 23, 2010 statement, Coastal First Nations Director Art Amos declared, “This bountiful and globally significant coastline cannot withstand an oil spill. This is where Enbridge hits a brick wall.” The group speaks for all nine of the indigenous nationalities on the B.C. coastline.
A statement of some 150 environmental and indigenous organizations and individuals opposing the pipeline was published in the Globe and Mail, also on March 23. The date is the anniversary of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster in Alaska.
A 36-inch pipeline would service the export of Alberta tar sands product to refiners in the U.S. and Asia while a parallel 24-inch line would import the light oil condensate that is an essential input to extraction. Enbridge’s application will now be reviewed by a three-person review panel established by the Canadian government and its National Energy Board.
The pipeline would traverse the territories of 50 indigenous peoples in British Columbia and Alberta as well as 700 rivers, streams and lakes. It would facilitate the expansion of tar sands production and its already vast quantities of toxic pollutants. It would be served by supertankers from a terminal point in the northern coastal town of Kitimat.
There is a not-so-small obstacle in the way of this plan, however, which is a 1971 federal government moratorium on oil tanker traffic along the British Columbia coast. But the review panel has already said it considers the moratorium to have no legal status.
“There is so much opposition that Enbridge can count on legal challenges and delays that ultimately are going to cost the people who invest in the project,” Josh Patterson told the Vancouver Sun on May 3. He is legal counsel for West Coast Environmental Law.
Rush to natural gas extraction
Meanwhile, a modern-day gold rush has been unleashed in the northeast of British Columbia for the extraction of natural gas from rock, shale and coal bed formations. Over the past decade, the provincial government has received several billion dollars in permit fees to explore and drill for gas.
The pace of drilling and extraction is accelerating. Plans are afoot to build gas processing facilities in the northeast as well as new pipelines and a liquefaction export terminal at Kitimat. Calgary based EnCana Corporation is heading up a consortium of seven other oil companies that would build a multi-billion dollar gas processing plant near Fort Nelson in the northeast. It would be the largest such facility in North America and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the province. Another plant is proposed by a different consortium in the same region.
Indigenous and other communities in the gas fields have serious opposition to the gas wells and any processing plants. Writing in the Dec. 22, 2009 Vancouver Sun, Chief Kathie Dickie of the Fort Nelson First Nation said, “Without the capacity to determine and plan for this development, the survival of the Fort Nelson First Nation is in jeopardy. This plant and the development that it brings must not be the end of us.”
In a bad omen for any government review of the proposed gas plants, the 800-member community has been told by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office that its concerns over clean air fall outside the parameters of its 100-year-old treaty with the government of Canada. “Imagine being told by a government official in 2009 that you have no say in the quality of air that you and your children breathe? What parent would stand for it?” wrote Dickie.
Public protest has recently halted or slowed several exploratory coal bed, natural gas extraction projects. The biggest such victory was in the Flathead River Valley adjacent to the U.S. border in southeast B.C. The provincial government has been obliged to declare a halt to all coal, gas and other mining development there (though not to forest cutting, tourism development, and road building). Meanwhile, drilling plans are proceeding near Fernie, B.C., by none other than the infamous British Petroleum (BP).
Pollution and encroachment on farms and rural communities from existing gas fields in the northeast have provoked deep anger and opposition from residents. A string of bombings have struck gas facilities in the past several years. Police investigations have failed to find a culprit and they complain that too few residents are willing to assist them.
The extraction process is highly polluting, and though natural gas is touted to be a “cleaner” source of energy compared to oil or coal, it is anything but. In a recent article in the Australian Green Left Weekly, author Renfrew Clark explains that due to unavoidable leakage in the complex network of extraction, refining and transportation of natural gas, it is every bit as polluting as oil or coal. Natural gas is composed almost entirely of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Its refining also happens to release large amounts of CO2.
The gas fields themselves are highly polluting of the surrounding air and water. Hydrogen sulphide is a common waste byproduct that can kill when breathed in high enough quantities. Other waste gases cause long-term damage to humans, even in low doses.
To extract natural gas from underground rock formations, a toxic mix of water and chemicals are injected under pressure to break it up and release the gas. The process is called “fracking” and is expanding across the United States. The state of New York has banned it because it pollutes underground water (more information on natural gas and health hazards at Energy Justice Network).
Fossil fuel extraction is set to expand in yet another form, namely coal. It accounts for two-thirds of Canada’s fossil fuel reserves, and most of those lie in Alberta and British Columbia. Three-quarters of Alberta’s electrical production comes from coal; Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia also derive a significant portion of their electrical production from it.
British Columbia produces most of its power from hydroelectricity. But it is a major producer and exporter of coal. It exported some 30 million tons of the dirty stuff in 2009, most of it to Asia through the Port of Vancouver.
Most of B.C.’s coal is produced through mountain-top removal in the province’s southeast. With the rise of international coal prices, no fewer than 10 proposals for new mines are on the books, including several, surprisingly to many, along the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, a region much better known for its salmon, whales and forests than for coal.
One of those is the proposed Raven Underground Mine near Courtenay on Vancouver Island. The streams and rivers that flow through the proposed mine site are home to valuable salmon and other fish stocks, and they drain into one of the largest shellfish habitats in North America. The mine proposal calls for washed coal to be trucked 80 kilometres along a narrow, winding highway often clogged with tourists to an export terminal to be constructed in Port Alberni, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island. A significant citizen protest movement has arisen to oppose the mine.