We Can Hate Them, But We Need Them

Just before the federal election in 2011 major environmental organizations held polls in British Columbia to see how voters felt about oil tanker traffic in BC Coastal waters. The results were impressive with 80 percent favouring a legislated ban.

New Democrats and the Green Party were careful to call for tankers to be banned from “northern coastal waters”, others like ForestEthics, a non-profit environmental organization with volunteer staffed offices in Canada and the USA, were a little broader in the ban zone. Its web page at the time said the 80 per cent ban call meant it was now time to see “this opposition translated into a full, legislated crude oil tanker ban for BC’s coastal waters.”

Other environmentalists drew the attention of all candidates in the May election to the 80 per cent ban-tankers vote and suggested dire things would happen to those who ignored the obvious wishes of the people. Liberal leader Michael Ignatief promptly announced he would move to implement such a ban if he became prime minister. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, openly supported tanker traffic. On election day Ignatief’s Liberals, were demolished, Harper’s Conservatives won a majority, have been arrogant in their triumph ever since and largely ignore the tanker transit debate.

In the past few months the oil tanker traffic debate, which many thought won back in 1972 when Canada and the USA came to agreement on tanker routes well away from the northern BC coast line, has again erupted with renewed confusion. Make that “with renewed confusion for me” because for the life of me I can’t understand how tanker traffic off our rugged northern coast can be more environmentally hazardous than ever present tanker traffic off our rugged southern coast.

The debate today is focused on the Enbridge proposal to build a pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat from which port Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) could be shipped world- wide with China the prime recipient. Opponents to the project are articulate, well organized and accurate in their claim that increased tanker traffic means increased risk of accident and subsequent threat to our rugged northern coastline. Of course it does, increased traffic on highway, ocean, or in the air, always increases of accident.

What isn’t talked about so much are the already existing hazards off our southern coastal waters, those we enjoy watching from Dallas Road as tankers, freighters, ferries and cruise ships move up and down and across the Strait. Do we ever view those freighters, tankers, barges, ferries, hustling back and forth as hazards? Or is scenic marine traffic something we’ve just become used to – and we know we can’t do without?

We may lament the presence of oil tankers, may even have voted for them to be banned when the polls were taken, without giving a thought to life without tankers or the huge oil barges bringing us our daily shots of the fuel we love to hate. Life without the internal combustion engine would undoubtedly be better for the health of us all, but disastrous to modern demands of society and commerce. Sure we could live without oil and gasoline, but would we really enjoy life without the convenience of the automobile for pleasure and business? And would the banning of just tankers guarantee an end to oil spills or other marine disasters?

Between 1997 and 2003 the Canadian Coast Guard studied the coastal environment of BC and came up with some interesting statistics on marine traffic. It reported tankers carrying liquid cargo, primarily oil, averaged 2,739 trips a year in the Vancouver, Victoria and Strait of Juan de Fuca zones and comprised one per cent of all traffic. Another 1,278 tankers carrying liquid chemicals, including petroleum or natural gas, traversed the same zones for another one per cent of total traffic.

Sounds a lot until you read that bulk cargo freighters carrying cars, grain, ore, etc; averaged 29,253 trips for seven per cent of the traffic; tugs, towing or propelling barges, totalled. 117,319 or 29 percent; fishing vessels, including catching, processing or transporting under the Fisheries Act, 11,078 or three per cent; vessels not included in any other category, 19,541 or five per cent.

And then the big one: Passenger vessels, including ferry and cruise ships, 229,095 – or 56 per cent of the average annual vessel movements of 401,301 individual threats to our southern coastal waters. Each one carried bunker oil, diesel or gasoline for its own movements; each one vulnerable to accident with potential disastrous results – and until we can say goodbye to the internal combustion engine each one remains important to our well being, including the tankers we can hate for their hazard but can’t do without

One comment

  1. A sensible discussion.Too many environmentalists advocate a medieval life that the rest of us are unprepared to embrace. We seek a balance between civilized living and environmental protection, the former supported by wealth, the latter by regulation. And we understand the risks that connect these values.

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