Vancouverites had a wake-up call this past week when a freighter on its maiden voyage dumped 2,700 litres of bunker fuel into English Bay. This spill should cause us all to ask some serious questions about the level of risk we are prepared to accept in our harbour and along our coast. We are not so naive that we believe we can simply turn off the flow of oil, but we need to ask: how much more should we take and how prepared we are now?
We are so connected to the ocean here. We know well the smell of the salt water and the subtle taste of it in the air as we walk along the seawall. We experience the overwhelming beauty of a sunset on Third Beach and the sanctuary that is English Bay, preserved and cherished within our bustling city. We are all responsible for this treasure; we are emotionally and personally connected to this place. It is critical to our quality of life and to our growing green economy. So we looked on with horror and sadness as the spill played out.
It could have been much worse. This relatively small spill is nothing compared to the potential disaster of a serious tanker accident. There are currently about 48 tankers per year moving through the Port of Metro Vancouver, each carrying 600,000 barrels of crude oil. Imagine an accident that spills even a tenth of that.
Although Prime Minister Harper’s government continue to trumpet a “world-class spill response system,” it appears we are ill-equipped for even this relatively small spill. It took six hours to get a boom around a leaking ship that was within sight of the city. It took twelve hours for federal officials to inform the City of Vancouver about what was happening in its own backyard.
In 2012, the federal government closed Environment Canada’s Environmental Emergencies office in Vancouver and moved it to Montreal. Nationally, 60 staff specifically trained to deal with oil spills lost their jobs.
In 2013, the Harper government closed the Kitsilano Coast Guard station. Coast Guard officials say this had no impact on their reaction to the spill, but former station staff said the response time would have been six minutes instead of six hours if the station was still open.
If Kinder Morgan’s proposed doubling of the Trans Mountain pipeline is approved, it would increase the amount of oil sands bitumen being transported through the Burrard Inlet. Approximately 400 more tankers would transit our harbour annually, each carrying 600,000 barrels of bitumen that, if spilled, would sink and become unrecoverable, fouling the environment for decades.
Are we prepared to accept that kind of risk? What safety procedures and recovery infrastructure need to be in place if we do?
At the community level, many municipal, provincial and First Nations representatives feel shut out of decision-making that affects the people they represent. We need a proper environmental assessment process that respects the participation of all. We need evidence-based science to make sound policy decisions.
In Canada, there is no constitutional power protecting the environment. The environment was not top of mind in 1867. We have trusted our federal governments to do the right thing. Perhaps it is time to rethink that. We need a modern approach that includes First Nations, the Provinces and Municipalities, that hears the concerns of residents and is thoughtful and inclusive.
Beyond the discussion about pipelines and tanker safety are the bigger issues about climate change and the movement of oil. Christophe McGlade, at University College London (UCL), who led new research published in the journal Nature, found production from the oil sands must fall to “negligible” levels after 2020 if we are to combat climate change and keep below catastrophic levels of temperature increase.
As a nation we need a better approach to these bigger issues. Justin Trudeau has begun to explore a cap and trade system and is suggesting a collaborative approach to working with the provinces to formulate a national climate change strategy. Meanwhile, the Harper government spends approximately $20 billion per year subsidizing the oil and gas industry. Imagine how much better that money could be spent.
My intention if elected is to bring people together, to create a place where decisions are made through proper debate, and ensure sound public policy. Issues like the environment should not be partisan. They last much longer than a political cycle and the life of one government.
We must find ways to have these profound conversations or condemn future generations to a harshly contaminated and unsustainable world, one we just saw the tiniest glimmer of this past week.