Pro-oil side M.I.A. at Board of Change pipeline panel
Panelists Rafe Mair, Rex Weyler and Art Steritt all agree on one thing: pipelines and tankers make no business sense for British Columbia.
A collection of business-minded Vancouverites gathered at the SAP building in Yaletown Thursday evening, hoping for a lively—and perhaps heated—debate about the merits of pipeline and tankers on the BC coast.
There was just one small problem: almost everybody in the room was on the same side.
The evening's panel discussion was hosted by the Vancouver Board of Change, a network of local businesses, nonprofits, and students dedicated to the pursuit of both money and meaning. Panelists included outspoken political commentator Rafe Mair; ecologist and author Rex Weyler; and Art Steritt, Executive Director of the Coastal First Nations.
Organizers said they requested the participation of several different companies and individuals to speak to some of the “pro-pipeline” arguments, during a discussion focused on BC’s two major project proposals (the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion terminating in Vancouver).
Unfortunately, not one of the people or groups they asked actually agreed to take part.
“We asked 15 or 16 organizations and people on the pro side, and nobody said yes,” explained Board of Change director Monika Marcovici.
For a while, the Board was hopeful that North Vancouver blogger Vivian Krause would attend to share her views on the pipeline and politics. But in the end, Krause said she couldn’t make it.
“Everyone has an excuse,” Marcovici said.
In an effort to balance the scales, moderator Robb Lucy introduced the idea of having audience members don their oil industry hats to ask some tough questions, since all three panelists shared the same “no pipeline, no tankers” perspective. Many of the people in the audience were Board of Change members, and organizers hoped this event would help clarify the issues so that the group would feel comfortable taking an official position.
Do economic benefits outweigh the risks?
Seated in rows of cushy beige office chairs, the small audience of about 50 listened attentively as the panelists laid out their arguments against Northern Gateway and the Kinder Morgan expansion. The seemingly conflicting interests of business and the environment were at the top of everyone’s minds.
“There is no question at all that spills, ruptures and so on—whether it be pipelines or tankers—are a certainty. They’re not a risk at all, they’re an absolute certainty,” said Mair, dressed in a “Sea Shepherd” sweatshirt and Birkenstocks, and toting his wooden cane.
“When that certainty happens, the results are catastrophic,” he added, calling attention to a sizeable bitumen spill in the Kalamazoo River in 2010 that Enbridge has still not fully cleaned up.
Weyler, architect of the local coalition Tanker Free BC, went one step further, professing that catastrophic spills aren’t the only thing coastal residents have to fear.
Not enough benefit to justify risks of oil pipeline
“If you’re an oil port, you have oil spills that they call ‘normal spillage’. Every single tanker that comes through, you have normal spillage…they write this off in their books as a business loss. There’s more oil spilled in the oceans under that category of normal spillage than there are from these catastrophic spills,” Weyler said.
He was almost teary-eyed as he described the image of an oil-soaked shoreline at West Vancouver’s Lighthouse Park, or around the Gulf Islands.
Steritt, a self-proclaimed capitalist, said that instead of becoming dependent on an oil economy, British Columbians need to stand up for the “natural capital” that sustains a vast array of industries and communities along the coast.
“British Columbia, from a First Nations perspective, is a living and breathing organism. All of the nutrients that come to all of us that live in British Columbia come out of the water,” Steritt said.
“We are now looking at a project that has the ability, with one spill, to destroy the lifeblood of British Columbia.”
Though each of their points may have differed slightly, the message was clear across the board: these pipelines don’t promise enough benefit to British Columbians—economic or social—to warrant taking such a huge risk. According to the panelists, jeopardizing the province’s billion-dollar industries like tourism and fishing, not to mention the culture and livelihoods of First Nations, just doesn’t make business sense.
“There’s a reason that industry isn’t here,” said Mair, pointing to the empty panelist seats across the room.
“There isn’t an answer. It’s just that simple, there is no answer. They have no case to make, and they never will come here.”
Playing Devil’s Advocate
In the absence of official voices representing the other side, panelists fielded questions and arguments from Lucy and several audience members hoping to stimulate more debate.
For instance, Lucy brought up reports that showed a decline in spill occurrences despite increased tanker traffic, citing technological advances and safety precautions promised by the industry. Weyler shot back, referring to two major international spills involving the same high-tech, double-hulled tankers that the industry says are top-notch.
One Board of Change member, a former mariner with tanker experience, warned others not to make sweeping statements without being certain of the facts. He suggested that before the group confirms their position, members should at least try to think about things from the industry’s perspective.
“The group needs to first understand what the reasons are for [the proponents], and then break that down, rather than just oppose because we oppose,” he said.
When someone brought up the potential economic benefits pipelines and tankers could hold for BC and for Canadians, Steritt pointed out some of the key differences in how Coastal First Nations view the economy.
“What First Nations in British Columbia have learned over the past number of years is that their well-being does not rely on money. It relies on their relationship with their land and their water, and the animals that live within that. That’s really where their wealth comes from,” he said.
“While everybody likes to have a job, they don’t depend on jobs the same way as the general public does. In the Great Bear Rainforest right now, the unemployment rate is about 85 per cent, but there’s no poverty. Why is there no poverty? Because everybody can go out and get all the fish they need to eat, and all the seaweed that they need to eat, and they can sustain themselves. If there was an oil spill, it’s over.
“There is really nothing, in terms of dollars and cents, that would encourage a First Nation to give up their right to their land and access to their food sources,” Steritt continued.
Winding up the discussion, Marcovici asked members if they felt ready to craft the group’s position—a show of hands revealed that the majority wanted more time. Organizers said Kinder Morgan had indicated they might be available to participate in a similar panel in the fall, hopefully giving Board of Change another opportunity to raise their concerns and learn more about the industry’s perspective.