By R. Bruce Striegler

Newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped the news just before he left the country for a series of international conferences. According to the new Prime Minister, there will be no oil tankers plying the waters off the British Columbia north coast. The headlines made environmentalists cheer, but left plenty of unanswered questions. The official statement from Transport Canada in response to queries from Canadian Sailings read, “As part of his mandate letter, the Honourable Marc Garneau (Minister of Transport) has been asked to formalize a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s North Coast, working in collaboration with the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, the Minister of Natural Resources and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and to develop an approach.”

In reporting the tanker ban, media stories focused on the Northern Gateway pipeline as the most likely casualty of this action. The Douglas Channel is the proposed shipping route for oil tankers from the Northern Gateway Project. With the coming ban, it is most likely that the pipeline is dead. But there are few in B.C. who believed it would ever be built in the first place, so while Enbridge says it continues to negotiate with First Nations over Northern Gateway, on November 16, the company announced it is cutting five per cent of its workforce.

Reported by a Calgary newspaper, Enbridge is quoted saying, “Northern Gateway has not been impacted by staff reductions, all decisions were made prior to the government announcement last week on the tanker ban and it is not related.” However, the prognosis for the estimated $7.9 billion, 525,000-barrel-per-day pipeline remains dim. Enbridge issued a statement following Trudeau’s announcement, “We are confident the Government of Canada will be embarking on the required consultation with First Nations and Métis in the region, given the potential economic impact a crude oil tanker ban would have on those communities and Western Canada as a whole.” The Northern Gateway project received federal government approval in June 2014 following review by the National Energy Board, and contingent on meeting 209 conditions. The Federal Court of Appeal is currently considering whether to overturn the approval after a court challenge by First Nations and environmental groups.

Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline from Alberta to its Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, is the only other major pipeline player in B.C. Trans Mountain is currently in National Energy Board hearings on its proposed expansion of the existing 1,150-kilometre pipeline between Strathcona County (near Edmonton), and B.C. If approved, the expansion would create a twinned pipeline that would increase the nominal capacity of the system from 300,000 barrels per day, to 890,000 barrels per day. In response to our questions, Kinder Morgan replied by email, saying, “The announcement is specific to the north coast – our terminal and tanker route is on the south coast and therefore it doesn’t directly impact us.”  Quoted in reports, Greg Stringham, a Vice-President with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said market access for “responsibly produced” crude remains a priority for the industry.

When contacted by Canadian Sailings, B.C.’s Ministry of the Environment told us, “The province looks forward to working closely and collaboratively with the new federal government on a range of issues that affect British Columbians. While shipping and navigation on coastal marine waters are federal jurisdiction, and the commitment to impose a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic was in the federal Liberal party’s election platform, we were not surprised.” The Ministry statement went on to say that B.C. has been clear that five conditions needed to be in place before supporting any new heavy oil pipelines. “One of those conditions is a world-leading marine spill preparedness and response system. We look forward to working with our federal partners to ensure an effective marine spill response is in place along our entire coastline.”

Debate over B.C. off-shore drilling and tankers began in 1967

Tanker bans and the debates that surround them are nothing new to British Columbia. The argument began following initial exploration off the B.C. coast in 1967. That’s when Shell Canada began drilling for oil off Barkley Sound. Fourteen drilled wells from Barkley Sound through the Haida Gwaii, the former Queen Charlotte Islands, and Hecate Strait found non-commercial levels of oil and some gas near Tofino. These disappointing results slowed exploration, but in 1972, the just-elected government of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau made a policy decision to stop issuing exploration permits for the B.C. offshore and to suspend all work obligations on existing permits.

In effect, this decision imposed a moratorium on those parts of B.C.’s shore under federal jurisdiction. In 1989, the NDP government in B.C. announced a similar moratorium, largely in response to the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska. At that time, the federal government reaffirmed its policy and announced that it would not consider any offshore development until requested to do so by the British Columbia government. In 2001, a newly elected BC Liberal government announced a policy decision to reassess the provincial moratorium on offshore oil and gas development. In response to B.C.’s request, the federal government launched a review process, designed to lay the basis for a decision regarding its policy on west-coast offshore oil and gas development.

The B.C. government had, in effect, ended the moratorium by simply by changing its policy. In the February 2003 Speech from the Throne, B.C. announced that by 2010 it wanted to see, “an offshore oil and gas industry that is up and running, environmentally sound, and booming with job creation.” Moving ahead, the province set-up an Offshore Oil and Gas Team to help enable offshore development in British Columbia. In May 2003, the team released an action plan that called for seismic exploration to begin by 2005. To meet this deadline, it was critical to resolve other issues including jurisdictional and regulatory agreements with the federal government and First Nations. At the time the B.C. action plan was released, the provincial Energy and Mines Minister was quoted in the Victoria Times Colonist as saying that while he hoped that the goals were attainable, he did not know whether they were realistic. As it turned out they weren’t, and other anti-oil, anti-tanker forces were mobilizing.

In 2011, as Northern Gateway was generating anger and protest during its National Energy Board hearings, the topic of tankers on B.C.’s coast again took centre stage. The Union of B.C. Municipalities promoted a tanker ban and the NDP provincial leader was quoted saying, “The fact is there haven’t been supertankers carrying crude or bitumen in the region is not an accident. That’s been policy.” B.C’s Environment Minister countered, saying, “There is no moratorium on tankers entering British Columbia ports.” As of August 2012, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency website said, “It is the Government of Canada’s position that there is presently no moratorium on tanker traffic in the coast waters of B.C.” That is apparently about to change.