British Columbia’s Fossil Fuel Superpower Ambitions
Part one of two parts:
The province of Alberta is well known as a climate-destroying behemoth. The tar sands developments in the north of that province are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.
Less well known are the ambitions of its neighbouring province, British Columbia. It shares similar fossil fuel reserves and ambitions as Alberta. Vast coal and natural gas reserves are being opened at breakneck speed. Construction is underway or planned for accompanying road, rail, pipeline and supertanker transport routes. Widespread opposition to these plans is growing, but will it spread fast enough to save the province from what amounts to an unprecedented assault on its natural environment and the health and welfare of its citizens?
No to Tar Sands Pipeline, Tankers
An unprecedented alliance of environmental organizations and Indigenous communities has come together to stop a proposed 1,200-kilometre dual pipeline across northern British Columbia. Enbridge company says it will spend $5-billion to build it. In a March 23 statement, Coastal First Nations Director Art Amos declared, “This bountiful and globally significant coastline cannot withstand an oil spill. This is where Enbridge hits a brick wall.” The group speaks for all nine of the indigenous nationalities on the B.C. coastline.
A statement of some 150 environmental and indigenous organizations and individuals opposing the pipeline was published in the Globe and Mail, also on March 23. The date is the anniversary of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster in Alaska.
A 36-inch pipeline would service the export of Alberta tar sands product to refiners in the U.S. and Asia while a parallel 24-inch line would import the light oil condensate that is an essential input to extraction. Enbridge’s application will now be reviewed by a three-person review panel established by the Canadian government and its National Energy Board.
The pipeline would traverse the territories of 50 indigenous peoples in British Columbia and Alberta as well as 700 rivers, streams and lakes. It would facilitate the expansion of tar sands production and its already vast quantities of toxic pollutants. It would be served by supertankers from a terminal point in the northern coastal town of Kitimat.
There is a not-so-small obstacle in the way of this plan, however, which is a 1971 federal government moratorium on oil tanker traffic along the British Columbia coast. But the review panel has already said it considers the moratorium to have no legal status.
“There is so much opposition that Enbridge can count on legal challenges and delays that ultimately are going to cost the people who invest in the project,” Josh Patterson told the Vancouver Sun on May 3. He is legal counsel for West Coast Environmental Law.
Rush to Natural Gas Extraction
Meanwhile, a modern-day gold rush has been unleashed in the northeast of British Columbia for the extraction of natural gas from rock, shale and coal bed formations. Over the past decade, the provincial government has received several billion dollars in permit fees to explore and drill for gas.
The pace of drilling and extraction is accelerating. Plans are afoot to build gas processing facilities in the northeast as well as new pipelines and a liquefaction export terminal at Kitimat. Calgary based EnCana Corporation is heading up a consortium of seven other oil companies that would build a multi-billion dollar gas processing plant near Fort Nelson in the northeast. It would be the largest such facility in North America and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the province.
Another plant is proposed by a different consortium in the same region.
Indigenous and other communities in the gas fields have serious opposition to the gas wells and any processing plants. Writing in the Dec. 22, 2009 Vancouver Sun, Chief Kathie Dickie of the Fort Nelson First Nation said, “Without the capacity to determine and plan for this development, the survival of the Fort Nelson First Nation is in jeopardy. This plant and the development that it brings must not be the end of us.”
In a bad omen for any government review of the proposed gas plants, the 800-member community has been told by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office that its concerns over clean air fall outside the parameters of its 100-year-old treaty with the government of Canada. “Imagine being told by a government official in 2009 that you have no say in the quality of air that you and your children breathe? What parent would stand for it?” wrote Dickie.
Public protest has recently halted or slowed several exploratory coal bed, natural gas extraction projects. The biggest such victory was in the Flathead River Valley adjacent to the U.S. border in southeast B.C. The provincial government has been obliged to declare a halt to all coal, gas and other mining development there (though not to forest cutting, tourism development, and road building). Meanwhile, drilling plans are proceeding near Fernie, B.C., by none other than the infamous British Petroleum (BP).
Pollution and encroachment on farms and rural communities from existing gas fields in the northeast have provoked deep anger and opposition from residents. A string of bombings have struck gas facilities in the past several years. Police investigations have failed to find a culprit and they complain that too few residents are willing to assist them.
The extraction process is highly polluting, and though natural gas is touted to be a “cleaner” source of energy compared to oil or coal, it is anything but. In a recent article in the Australian Green Left Weekly, author Renfrew Clark explains that due to unavoidable leakage in the complex network of extraction, refining and transportation of natural gas, it is every bit as polluting as oil or coal. Natural gas is composed almost entirely of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Its refining also happens to release large amounts of CO2.
The gas fields themselves are highly polluting of the surrounding air and water. Hydrogen sulphide is a common waste byproduct that can kill when breathed in high enough quantities. Other waste gases cause long-term damage to humans, even in low doses.
To extract natural gas from underground rock formations, a toxic mix of water and chemicals are injected under pressure to break it up and release the gas. The process is called “fracking” and is expanding across the United States. The state of New York has banned it because it pollutes underground water (more information on natural gas and health hazards at Energy Justice Network).
Fossil fuel extraction is set to expand in yet another form, namely coal. It accounts for two-thirds of Canada’s fossil fuel reserves, and most of those lie in Alberta and British Columbia. Three-quarters of Alberta’s electrical production comes from coal; Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia also derive a significant portion of their electrical production from it.
British Columbia produces most of its power from hydroelectricity. But it is a major producer and exporter of coal. It exported some 30 million tons of the dirty stuff in 2009, most of it to Asia through the Port of Vancouver.
Most of B.C.’s coal is produced through mountain-top removal in the province’s southeast. With the rise of international coal prices, no fewer than 10 proposals for new mines are on the books, including several, surprisingly to many, along the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, a region much better known for its salmon, whales and forests than for coal.
One of the new coal projects is the proposed Raven Underground Mine near Courtenay on Vancouver Island. The streams and rivers that flow through the proposed mine site are home to valuable salmon and other fish stocks, and they drain into one of the largest shellfish habitats in North America. The mine proposal calls for washed coal to be trucked 80 kilometres along a narrow, winding highway often clogged with tourists to an export terminal to be constructed in Port Alberni, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
A significant citizen protest movement has arisen to oppose the mine.
Part two of two parts:
Corporate Vandals Assault
Rivers, Oceans, Forests
The assault on the environment accompanying expanding fossil fuel extraction is nothing new for the corporate elite in British Columbia. The lamentable state of the forest ranges, fish stocks and water quality in the province are a warning of the sharp threat to the entire biosphere by profit-hungry resource corporations that hangs over the entire province.
For decades, companies have plundered the forests to feed lumber and paper mills. They have left blighted landscapes in their wake. Clear cutting is still the standard practice whenever a company enters a forest to cut. Logging of rare old growth forests is still practiced, notwithstanding highly publicized campaigns that succeeded in stopping it in some areas of the province, such as Clayoquet Sound on the western coast of Vancouver Island.
“We’ve lost 90 per cent of the valley bottoms where the big trees grow,” says Ken Wu of the recently-founded Ancient Forest Alliance on Vancouver Island. “All you have to do is fly over the Island to see it. The old growth is tattered and in tiny patches on the Island.”
A 2008 study at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver showed there is typically more economic value in a forest left uncut than is derived from logging it.
The corporate argument in favour of unfettered logging says that forests are a renewable resource available to future generations. But companies and government have steadily cut back on reforestation. An urgent call to action by three researchers published in the April 28, 2010, Vancouver Sun said “a major reforestation crisis is underway” in British Columbia. The backlog of lands in desperate need of replanting has doubled in the past 10 years while companies and government have drastically reduced their spending. Government spending on replanting is one-sixth of what it was 20 years ago and the number of seedlings planted today is three per cent of what it was back then.
The current B.C. Liberal Party government, first elected in 2001, has also drastically cut the operations of the Ministry of Forests, which is supposed to oversee the health of the forests and the practices of lumber and paper companies. Hundreds of employees in the ministry, including frontline inspectors and compliance officers, have been laid off. An article in the April 23 Georgia Straight details repercussions of these cuts.
The replanting that does take place is wholly inadequate. It typically replaces the diversity of tree species found in nature with a monoculture favouring the most commercially lucrative species. This, along with climate warming, has been a major contribution to the disaster that has struck the vast pine forests of the province’s interior – the out of control spread of the mountain pine beetle.
The beetle is a naturally occurring pest in the B.C. pine forests. Its effects have historically been limited by the diversity of tree species in the forest and cold winter temperatures that kill its larvae. Winters are no longer cold enough to kill the larvae and the beetle has bored its way through the province’s pine forests. Vast swaths of interior B.C. are pine tree dead zones.
Several years ago, the beetle jumped its natural barrier to the east, the Rocky Mountains, and has now begun an inexorable march across the northern Canadian forests.
Communities throughout the B.C. interior that depend on the forest industry for their livelihood are staring at a bleak future as the last of the trees killed by the beetle are cut and processed.
Protecting the Great Bear Rainforest
In 2006, an agreement was signed between forest companies and environmental organizations that, for some, offered hope for the future of the forests and related employment. Logging was suspended in one-third of the 6.4 million hectare Great Bear Rainforest along the central and northern B.C. coastline.
A follow-up agreement in March 2009 will see the application of Ecosystem Based Management (“lighter touch” logging) to an additional 0.7 million hectares and additional measures to limit the most destructive of logging practices.
The Great Bear agreement does not protect the forest nor its inhabitants from mining, hydroelectric and tourism development. The logging suspension applies to 14 per cent of the most productive forest area.
In 2009, the three environmental organizations that spearheaded the original agreement – Greenpeace, Sierra Club B.C. and ForestEthics – voiced satisfaction with the results of the first three years. The following year, they sounded a different tone over a key part of the 2009 agreement, namely a process to identify the habitat requirements of five key bird and animal species at risk.
In a March 2010, statement, the groups said, “Although the B.C. government pledged to protect the biodiversity of the Great Bear Rainforest, it cannot confirm that it is maintaining enough habitat to prevent the extirpation of the five focal species… let alone managing them to low risk as is required to fully implement Ecosystem-Based Management.”
Saving the Northern Forest of Canada?
Another, much larger, forest agreement was recently signed between 21 member companies of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPA) and nine major environmental organizations. It has been hailed as opening a new era in forest industry practice across Canada.
The Boreal Forest Agreement is a voluntary pact whose initial term is supposed to limit logging in the northern forests that are home to Canada’s threatened woodland caribou herds. According to the FPA, it would halt logging on 29 million hectares of land, “virtually all Boreal caribou habitat on company tenures.” There are an estimated 36,000 woodland caribou in Canada’s boreal forest (more numerous caribou species live further north).
The agreement’s potential to “open a different era of forest management” that protects the biosphere seems dubious. For one, the participation of forest companies is voluntary. In Alberta, to take one example, non-signatory companies hold cutting rights on 20 per cent of the commercially viable boreal forest in the province.
In the same province, only one-quarter of the tenured lands of signatory companies are covered by the agreement. Only eight per cent of Alberta’s 50 million hectares of boreal forest will be protected from cutting or road-building by forest companies.
Stan Boutin, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, thinks the agreement may help the caribou in other parts of Canada, but not in Alberta. That’s because of the widespread activity of the oil and gas companies. (The same could be said for the northeast British Columbia range of the caribou, where oil and gas activity is rapidly expanding).
In an interview on Vancouver Co-Operative Radio’s Red Eye program on May 29, Boutin said that close study of the caribou herds in Alberta began in 1994 and has revealed a catastrophic decline in numbers, down 80 per cent. The reasons are twofold. Once the boreal forest area is cut, it degrades the food source for caribou and opens it up to competing species such as moose and deer.
More seriously, the road building associated with forest cutting and other industry allows predatory wolves to gain easier access to the herds. Boutin notes that road building and clear cutting by the oil and gas industry in Alberta is widespread in the caribou ranges.
He says that revival of the caribou herds will require a halt to further road building and forest cutting, and restoration of native vegetation to the affected areas. That’s a tall order in a country that has always given free rein to forest and other resource companies.
Boutin was asked whether the forest agreement is likely to reduce the cutting of forests in Canada. “I haven’t seen all the details of the agreement,” he replied, “but I would venture to guess that the annual allowable cut has not been reduced, just moved around.”
“It’s pretty rare that the forest companies would agree to a reduction in annual allowable cut.”
Rights of Indigenous Peoples Passed Over
The Boreal Forest Agreement has brought sharp condemnations from Indigenous peoples across Canada.
Clayton Thomas-Muller told Vancouver Media Co-Op’s Dawn Paley that the forest agreement, like the earlier one in B.C., are being signed over the heads of the affected indigenous peoples.
“What this means is that first nations no longer have the support of these mainstream environmental groups that have fallen into the strategy of conquer and divide deployed by industry.”
Mike Mercredi of the Fort Chipewyan Cree people is cited on OilSandsTruth.org:
“Any Environmental NGO out there who speaks on tar sands issues related to rare cancers being found in Fort Chipewyan or the boreal forest… are not speaking on behalf of any first nations in any of these regions.”
“The sovereignty of the first nations people of Canada is at risk and will be extinguished if this carries on. I will not allow it to happen. We are not allowing ENGOs to bargain with our children’s future, nor will we allow any ENGO to speak on our first nation’s behalf.”
Fort Chipewyan lies adjacent to the tar sands of Alberta and is suffering deeply from related water pollution and alarming increases in cancers among its residents.
Five Thousand Rally in Victoria to Save Wild Salmon
One of the most visible expressions of the rise of a renewed environmental movement in B.C. has been the campaign against the proliferation of salmon farms along the B.C. coast. Concerned citizens want the provincial government to revoke the licenses of the largely Norwegian companies that operate the farms.
They staged a weeks-long walk along the length of Vancouver Island in April and early May that drew widespread support. Called the “GET OUT MIGRATION,” it culminated in a rally in front of the provincial legislature in Victoria on May 8 comprising as many as 5,000 people.
Wild salmon migrate up and down the coast and rivers of northwest North America. They are a vital source of food and livelihood for the people who live there, including its indigenous peoples. Salmon also feed the trees that make oxygen and over 200 species fueling a $1.6-billion wilderness tourism industry.
Last year saw a catastrophic decline in the numbers of salmon returning to spawn in the Fraser River. The river and its tributaries are the world’s largest salmon spawning ground.
The salmon farms break natural laws by holding salmon stationary and intensifying the instances of disease and parasites. Most of the jobs they create are not for local residents; those that pay low wages. The farms’ contribution to local economies is exaggerated.
Salmon are under great stress due to climate change and destruction of their spawning habitat. They require clean, undisturbed creek and river beds in order to successfully reproduce. Urban development as well as mining, forestry and other industrial activity are constantly degrading this environment. The federal and provincial governments have for years denied there is a threat to the health and survival of salmon species on the west coast, but last year’s decline on the Fraser River has, finally, compelled the federal government to convene a formal inquiry into what is happening to them.
“I think there is a real sense of urgency to save the wild salmon” Fred Speck of the GwaWaenuk nation told the Vancouver Sun. He had walked the hundreds of kilometres covered by the march along with Alexandra Morton, the biologist who first alerted British Columbians to the damage caused by salmon farms many years ago.
The Save Our Salmon campaign proposes land-based, closed containment facilities as the only way in which salmon farms should be allowed to operate. In an article in the Island Tides biweekly newspaper in late May, Morton explained, “There is no reason we need to beg for low-paying jobs raising fish we cannot touch when we could have millions of salmon returning to us (every year)!”
As if forestry practices were not bad enough, one of the new threats to the rivers in British Columbia, and to the fish that live and spawn there, is the proliferation of hydro-electric projects. Permits for some 500 “run of river” projects have been granted by the provincial government or are under consideration.
Touted as a “green” source of energy, “run of river” involves diverting water flow through channels and generating stations.
At the failed world climate summit conference in Copenhagen last January, mainstream environmental organizations in British Columbia presented an award to B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell. This bizarre gesture was motivated by the 2008 decision of the government to increase the sales tax on gasoline (a so-called “carbon tax”) by 2.3 cents per litre, to eventually rise to 10 cents. Happily, others in the environmental movement are less easily swayed by superficial policy.
Source on Boreal Forest statistics (from the Edmonton Journal, May 19, 2010):
By the Numbers:
- In total, Alberta is home to 49,508,709 hectares of boreal forest.
- Alberta has 20,649,531 hectares of commercial forest within its boreal zone.
- 16,963,909 hectares of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) member tenure lands in Alberta fall under the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.
- The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement applies to 4,421,335 hectares of caribou range within the FPAC member tenure lands in Alberta.
- The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement commits to no harvesting or road building in 4,373,171 hectares of caribou range in Alberta.
Forest Products Association of Canada press release. •
This article published in conjunction with rabble.ca.