Gulf spill spells bad news for Enbridge pipeline

May 2, 2010
Published in Troy Media (May 2, 2010), Victoria Times-Colonist (May 5, 2010), Winnipeg Free Press (May 6, 2010), Trail Daily Times (May 6, 2010), The Vancouver Sun (May 7, 2010)

"Can we promise there will never be an accident? No. Nobody can."

Those were the words of Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel this week in reference to his company's proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline.

It was strange timing for the company to state that its plan to build an oilsands pipeline to the B.C. coast will succeed despite opposition from First Nations, communities and environmental organizations. As the CEO spoke, oil continued to spill from the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank more than a week ago.

For several days the well was thought to be spewing 1,000 barrels a day from the seafloor, but on Thursday that estimate was ramped up to 5,000 barrels a day. The environmental disaster is expected to cost more than the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska. As thousands of tonnes of floating oil reached the U.S. Gulf Coast, several coastal states declared a state of emergency.

The fact the rig exploded for unknown reasons is bad; however, the fact the blowout preventer, the device that is supposed to prevent this very type of environmental catastrophe, doesn't appear to have worked, is even worse. While BP scrambles to begin the long process of drilling a relief well or to implement a wildcard solution - lowering a massive steel dome or setting the Jamaica-sized oil slick on fire - one thing has become clear: bad accidents happen - steel ruptures, safety valves fail and after the backup plan, there is no plan.

And that deals a major blow to claims by the oil industry that it can operate safely in environmentally sensitive areas.

In the case of the Enbridge pipeline, that area is not only B.C.'s pristine North Coast, home of the Great Bear Rainforest, but also the 1,200 kilometres of territory it will traverse.

Fully opening B.C.'s coast to crude oil tankers creates the risk of a major oil spill, endangering salmon, bears and all the wildlife that lives in and around our coastline.

If the Enbridge project goes ahead, it would bring more than 225 oil tankers to the narrow Douglas Channel each year to export the 525,000 barrels of oil arriving at the Kitimat terminal each day.

The Deepwater Horizon blowout is a brutal reminder that we need a permanent ban on new oil and gas development and tanker traffic off the B.C. coast, something that environmental organizations have been requesting for years. The Gulf disaster has reignited a call for federal action on this issue.

As for the pipeline itself, the question isn't whether a pipeline failure will happen, it is when and where - and how badly it will impact the environment. According to a National Energy Board report, there is an average of one rupture every 16 years for every 1,000 kilometres of pipeline in Canada. The Enbridge oilsands pipeline would not be immune to this risk.

The risks posed by pipelines are to both land and water. Considering the pipeline would follow a treacherous mountain route littered with avalanches and landslides, while crossing 1,000 rivers and streams in B.C., the consequences of any leak or rupture could be catastrophic.

The pipeline would cross important salmon habitat, as well as the traditional territories of more than 50 First Nations communities, more than half of which have indicated direct opposition to the project in the Pipe Up Against Enbridge campaign.

In a declaration that has drawn comparisons to the Clayoquot Sound protests of the early '90s, Coastal First Nations have said they will not allow oil tankers into their waters - and are prepared to go so far as blockading tankers with their boats.

Sound like a grim project? It is. What's worse is all of these risks are being considered to transport a resource with high environmental impacts - oilsands petroleum - to new markets, enabling a 30 per cent increase in oilsands production, according to a Pembina Institute study.

The Deepwater Horizon blowout is a terrible tragedy, resulting in 11 lost lives, the likely devastation of commercial fisheries and tourism, severe ecological damage and a costly and litigious cleanup. The Enbridge pipeline would force us to accept this same risk - and a similar tragic outcome - on our shores. Oil and water don't mix.

Karen Campbell is Staff Counsel and Strategy Director for the Pembina Institute. Find out more about the Institute's work in B.C. at