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Southern Gateway: An American pipeline giant's plans for Vancouver

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Almost missed the boat

During the late summer months, in the waters surrounding southern Gabriola Island, a family of resident orcas feed on herring that swirl in an especially strong current. The mammals’ endangered status is just one reminder of the fragility of this marine ecosystem.

An endangered orca pod off the coast of British Columbia. Photo credit: S.E.Ingraham, 23 March 2012, Creative Commons.

On October 13, 2011, the federal Minister of Environment announced a tentative boundary for establishing a National Marine Conservation Area Reserve that would stretch 1,400 square km from the southern tip of Gabriola Island to Saanich Inlet, just north of Victoria. While marine biologists, conservationists and local residents celebrated, some were concerned over a proposal to increase oil tanker traffic through an ecosystem already under so much stress. 

Sheila Malcolmson has seen all kinds of vessel traffic go by Gabriola Island. She’s lived on the the island for 17 years and as the chair of the Islands Trust Council, a federation of local municipalities from the Gulf Islands, she makes it her business to watch for any increase in ships through the Georgia Strait. 

But Kinder Morgan’s application to the National Energy Board last summer was nowhere on her radar.

“We could have missed the boat so to speak completely on this one,” Malcolmson said.

Amidst a stream of Google alerts on vessel traffic through the Salish Sea, one of Malcolmson’s staff at the Islands Trust Council noticed one in particular. 

Near the end of March 2011, a news release from the NEB stated that Kinder Morgan was applying for permission to secure long-term contracts with shippers, a key to gaining the financial certainty needed to further expand its pipeline’s capacity. 

The hearings, the news release stated, would be held in Calgary that August. Those interested in participating had until April 21 to apply -- just under a month. 

Comments would be accepted in writing until June 17, the noticed continued. Malcolmson and her team spent the next three months racing to understand all they could about the application and its significance. 

As it was not advertised anywhere that would be accessible to coastal communities, she credits the “diligence of one staff person” for making her team aware of the issue at all. 

In fact, Malcolmson even doubted whether her team had rightfully interpreted this particular application as a concern.  

“If we are reading this right, this looks really significant,” she concluded later, after deciphering the application’s legalese with help from experts. 

Why are we the only people that know?

From April through to the end of May 2011, Malcomlson and her team spoke to industry personnel, environmental lawyers and federal regulators to gain a deeper understanding of the convoluted regulatory process and Kinder Morgan’s plans.

“I can’t think of anything else that has been as complex for us to analyze,” Malcolmson said.

As a local government with the capacity to focus a lot of time and energy on shipping safety, it was still a huge challenge. 

It was also difficult to find experts to hire for analysis who weren’t working for the oil and gas industry.

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