Park Board motion aims to protect Vancouver beaches from oil spill threat
Park Board commissioner Niki Sharma says the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s oil sands pipeline—combined with the closing of spill response centres—would set the city up for disaster.
The frightening vision of a Stanley Park beach covered in oil is part of what compelled Vancouver Park Board commissioner Niki Sharma to voice her growing concerns, with an upcoming motion to oppose the expansion of a Kinder Morgan pipeline from the oil sands to Vancouver’s port.
Given the federal government’s recent decision to shut down a regional environmental emergency response centre—which would play a critical role in the event of a spill—she says the city is being set up for a “disaster” situation.
“The Vancouver Park Board is an elected body, and our mandate is to preserve and protect our beaches and our green spaces. We manage right now about 24 kilometres of green space that would be bordering the waterfront,” Sharma told the Observer.
“And when we heard about the proposed plans to expand the pipeline and tanker traffic to the inlet it just caused us great concern because that’s something that could potentially seriously affect the areas we have to protect.”
Texas-based Kinder Morgan officially announced plans earlier this month to almost triple the capacity of their existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which currently runs from Alberta to Metro Vancouver’s Westridge Marine Terminal. The proposed $5 billion expansion would increase the pipeline’s capacity to up to 850,000 barrels of crude oil per day, making it even greater than that of the hotly contested Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. The expansion would also significantly boost the amount of tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet, bringing up to 360 supertankers per year past the city’s shores.
Sharma said the Park Board motion—to be heard at the next meeting on April 30—is just the first step in countering Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion. If the Board passes the proposal to take an official position on the company’s plans, she said, they can then move forward and discuss further action. Mayor Gregor Robertson has already publicly come out against the expansion project, joining Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan in opposition.
“I haven’t heard anybody in favour of this expansion,” Sharma added, referring to her colleagues on Park Board and City Council.
“On April 30th, we’ll have the opportunity to hear from the public as well. So they can come forward with their views on how they see that this would potentially affect our beaches and parks, and whether or not we should take that official stance.”
Kinder Morgan is still in the early stages of the engagement process, with plans to file an application with the National Energy Board by 2014. If the project gets the green light, construction could begin by 2016.
Given the Harper government’s recent changes to federal environmental assessments, which appear to favour new resource projects, many say the fight against the proposed expansion will not be an easy one. But Sharma says city officials will likely be looking to partner with local organizations to find effective ways to address the issue.
“We definitely have, I think, an obligation as the Vancouver Park Board to stand up and use any authority we have in our political positions to figure out what we can do to oppose [the expansion],” said Sharma.
Regional spill response centres closing down
One of the things Sharma says causes “great concern” is the shutdown of several environmental emergency response centres across Canada—including the office in Vancouver. Regional outposts of the Environmental Emergencies Program are generally responsible for coordinating the cleanup of oil spills occurring within federal jurisdictions, including waterways.
“If we don’t have the proper protections to even analyze what areas are of significant environmental concern and to respond properly to an oil spill…really what this is setting up is the potential for a disaster in this part of the world,” Sharma said.
Ben West, a campaigner with the Vancouver-based Wilderness Committee, says this latest announcement simply adds to the government’s poor track record on environmental protection.
“Just when you thought you couldn’t imagine anything stupider that the Harper government could do regarding oil tankers and oil exports, I mean, this is just really taking the cake for me,” said West.
“It’s remarkable to be facing this massive increase in tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet, along with what they’re proposing up north and at the same time cutting the budgets for the people who are actually responsible for response if a spill were to take place.”
Earlier in April, Environment Canada assured citizens that cutting back on these emergency teams would not have a negative impact on potential spill responses, as the agency will still be available to coordinate cleanup efforts through centralized call centres in Quebec. But critics say that “long-distance” plan doesn’t account for difficulties on the ground.
“This idea that it can all be coordinated in Montreal, it just doesn’t stand up to basic logic,” said West.
“The people who know the area, who know the people and the Coast Guard, and the various people in Marine Traffic Control—those are relationships that build up over years. There’s a local understanding that can’t just be replaced by someone over the phone in Montreal.”
A Kinder Morgan spokesperson responded to the Observer last week, expressing the company’s confidence in an internal spill response plan to deal with any potential emergencies.
“Kinder Morgan has effective spill response in place through its own preparedness, and through its coordination with other emergency response agencies in the area, and in particular with West Coast Marine Response Corporation. Kinder Morgan believes that this, combined with the Government’s additional commitment and funding to marine safety will contribute to maintaining, and improving as necessary, marine safety,” the company stated in an email.
For West, however, these assurances apply less to environmental damage than to the company’s ability to weather the legal storm.
“I don’t doubt that they’re prepared to clean up their own facilities if they have a spill on their own facility…but really what it looks like to me that they’re prepared for is a court battle when there’s an incident,” he said.
According to West, part of the difficulty is that oil tankers in the water fly “flags of convenience”, meaning that responsibility for an accident is often handed off to avoid excess risk for companies like Kinder Morgan.
“It’s often how companies absolve themselves of responsibility. They contract out elements of what they’re doing to these other small companies, so that they can point the finger at them as opposed to taking responsibility themselves,” he said.
“Kinder Morgan never really had any intention of being a tanker shipping company, but obviously the tankers fill up with oil somewhere and they wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the terminal and pipeline.”