Iain Hunter: Will oil erase explorer’s inscription?

I suppose Alexander Mackenzie started it all. When the Scottish explorer finally reached tidewater on the Pacific Coast, he left his mark on a rock at the water’s edge that’s there still.

“Alex Mackenzie from Canada by land 22d July 1793,” it says. Others have followed him, some filled with wonder as he must have been; some determined to make something of what he discovered.

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A few more than 200 kilometres away from his rock as a seabird flies lies Kitimat, the designated terminal for the Northern Gateway pipeline from which tankers would carry Alberta bitumen down the constricted Douglas Channel to Asia if the project turns out to be more than a pipedream of Enbridge and other members of the pipeline consortium.

The project is a nightmare for many coastal dwellers, as it is for many inlanders who dread the iron snake moving, segment by segment, to tidewater across supernatural land they cherish.

They fear the bile that that snake would carry. They don’t dream of seabirds flying from Mackenzie’s rock; they imagine seabirds on a shore suffocating in a shroud of heavy oil, drowning in what makes mighty engines run.

People knowledgeable about all this keep saying the Gateway is blocked. They say that though Premier Christy Clark might persuade others to meet one of her five “conditions” for supporting the project — that B.C. get a fair share of profits — the other four conditions can’t be met.

They include approval by the federal environmental review, meeting aboriginal rights requirements and the development of “world-class” oil-spill response strategies.

“World-class” as used by Clark makes the last condition sound achievable. But it’s not nearly as strong as the insistence by the B.C. government at review panel hearings in June that the consortium must come up with an “effective response” to any spills.

Last week, in an interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, the premier left the oil-spill response responsibility with Ottawa. She said that the federal government hasn’t the resources to handle a large tanker spill off the B.C. coast today, let alone when 525,000 barrels of Alberta bitumen a day are being offloaded at Kitimat.

“We’re woefully under-resourced,” Clark said. She found it “encouraging” that the feds have begun to look at coastal safety and coast guard resources, but made it clear more has to happen “before any more heavy oil comes off the coast.”

Enbridge, as part of its revamped PR campaign, is boasting about what it intends to do to keep the birds, animals and fish and forests, plains and waters of B.C. thriving when it has built a better pipeline and provided expanded marine safety measures.

Yet the company testified before the pipeline hearings that its liability ends at the end of the pipe. Is good faith enough?

Besides, if there’s a large spill, what can be done? The coast guard has been decimated in the interests of fiscal responsibility. It can’t perform cleanup, only supervise it.

Western Canada Marine Response Group Corp. says it has skimmers, booms and absorbent pads in coastal caches and 28 response vessels. But in the event of a big spill, it would have to call for help from other spill response outfits.

And it would take 72 hours to respond, longer in storms. There’s even talk of conscripting fishboats and other craft. Then what?

“No current cleanup methods remove more than a small fraction of oil spilled in marine waters,” said a U.S. National Academy of Sciences panel in 2003.

Chemicals used to disperse oil are toxic to the environment and human beings. Scientists in Europe are wondering if freeze-dried oil-eating bacteria might work better.

“In most open ocean spills, no oil from a spill is recovered,” B.C. testified before the pipeline hearings. And heavy crude sinks.

Yet Clark said she’s “confident” her five conditions can be met, that “effective response” is possible.

Enbridge says it’s confident that oil will be flowing through its pipes in five years.

The company sounds as if it’s planning another historic marker at Kitimat: “Enbridge from Alberta by land 22nd July 2018.”

How long before it and Mackenzie’s rock would be obliterated by an oilsands slick?

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