With the review of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline project by the National Energy Board already a few weeks in, most organizations with any stake in the outcome of the decision have already staked out a position, but not the Skeena – Queen Charlotte Regional District.
The regional district has stayed deliberately quiet on the subject, not putting out any public declaration of support or opposition to the controversial project. The rationale for staying out of the debater raging all around them is that as a level of government they should stand aside and let the process play itself out.
But now that the Federal Conservatives have entered the fray all but outright declaring their support for the pipeline and deriding opponents as radicals who are hijacking the regulatory process to further their own agenda.
Board member. Evan Putterill, who brought the subject up at their meeting on Friday, says that if the feds are going to start telling the region what’s good for it, the regional district should at least decide what its position on the project is.
“We’ve talked a little about this before, but we’ve never sent any messages to government on where we stood on this issue. I’m pretty certain about how my community’s stance is that we’re against any acceleration in oil tanker traffic in the Hecate Strait. I thought I’d bring this up to see what type of opinion or stance, if any, this board wants to take,” says Putterill.
The resulting debate was long with frustrations over the issue boiling to the surface but in the end, some board members were too uneasy about rushing to take a position that night. So while no position on the project was reached, the debate highlighted the difficult balancing act between economic development and environmental protection that the local governments have to deal with.
Most board members expressed opposition to the Enbridge Pipeline in varying degrees with Evan Putterill, Des Nobles and Knut Bjorndal firmly on the opposition side; Nelson Kinney and Karl Bergman worried about driving away business; and other members like Karol Kulesha, Ian Gould Anna Ashley and Michael Racz advocating caution so that the regional district doesn’t adopt a hasty position that could backfire later on.
Des Nobles made the motion that the regional district declare that it “does not support the increase in tanker traffic in northern waters because the risk is too great to assume on behalf of our constituents.”
In the past the board has opposed tanker traffic carrying crude oil, but moving to oppose all tanker traffic was a big step and perhaps the motion was too broad.
“I’m not ready at this point to say all tankers containing any kind of oil would be a danger,” says Kulesha.
Nobles argued that the because traffic of all kinds is on the increase and spending on marine safety in constantly being clawed back and the federal government pushing for traffic considered to be too risky for many, the board needs to take a position before the situation gets out of hand.
“I’m afraid at this point we’re in a position where if we don’t make [our opinion] known at this point it may come back to bight us down the road. We should at least put it out there that we do have a position, we do have concerns and beyond that we are willing to review other things. I think the time has come for us to put it on the table,” says Nobles.
Knut Bjorndal said they should distinguish the Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) also known commonly as “supertankers” that are going to be used to transport the bitumen from Kitimat and other kinds of tanker traffic such as the fuel ships that supply the Haida Gwaii and logging camps and the Alaskan oil tankers that sail down the west coast in the open ocean. The VLCCs are a different story he says.
“[The bitumen] is highly toxic and makes the Exxon-Valdez look like a kindergarten play,” says Bjorndal.
Another, Karl Bergman, disagreed with Bjorndal’s assertion that the supertankers had little or no benefit to the area, he also worried that saying “no” is the region’s knee-jerk reaction to everything and it could end up driving away businesses.
“Are we ever going to say yes in the north to anything? Everything that has ever come to this place the first thing we do is jump up and say no,” says Bergman.
“We all are dependent on oil. This reminds me of the little town that doesn’t want Walmart so it goes to the next town down the road. Guess what? That little town still dies. So if you keep pushing people out of here, you’ll get your wish: there will be no tankers and no people either.”
Nelson Kinney echoed that position likening the situation to the opposition to Pinnacle Wood pellet Facility being proposed for Prince Rupert’s waterfront.
“We’re having that problem with people on the waterfront now. It’s the little bins that are going to go up…It’s going to spoil their view and the grain elevator was taller than these things are going to be,” says Kinney.
Finding the right language to satisfy those who want the district to oppose the supertankers but without opposing other kinds of ship traffic the region does want was elusive. Definitions and amendments were thrown around to try to find it but that just left some members confused about what they exactly the motion was trying to say or what the outcome from it might be.
“I just still do not understand [the motion] well enough. We’re working here to be very precise about why we don’t support the pipeline and finding something we all feel we can support is an issue. I understand a lot of what we’re saying here but I don’t know what the ramifications of what we’re talking about,” says Ian Gould.
“The problem is the clarity of the motion. . .It’s still not clear enough for enough for me to vote in favour of it,” says Ashley.
Ashley says the need to be careful because the port of Prince Rupert is growing and its not clear what industries will want to use it in the future, which was why the city avoided supporting a prohibition on tanker traffic in its own position on the pipeline and focused more on the need to safeguard the environment.
Even with amendments there was too much uncertainty to actually pass a motion giving the district position and eventually Michael Racz moved that they table the issue for the time being to give members more than just half an hour of debate to think it over.
“If we put something out there and we don’t really know what it is, it’ll just get twisted,” says Racz.
The motion to leave the subject until next month passed almost unanimously with Des Nobles being the one opposition. Nobles said that even if they didn’t come to a conclusion that night the debate was still worth having.