Canada: Fossil fuel expansion planned in British Columbia

June 25, 2010
Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada.

The Canadian province of Alberta is well known as a climate-destroying behemoth. The tar sands developments in its north 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 an unprecedented assault on its natural environment and the health and welfare of its citizens?

An unprecedented alliance of environmental organisations and indigenous communities has come together to stop a proposed 1200-kilometre dual pipeline across northern British Columbia.

Enbridge energy company says it will spend C$5 billion to build it. In a March 23 statement, Coastal First Nations director Art Amos said: “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 BC coastline.

A statement of some 150 environmental and indigenous organisations and individuals opposing the pipeline was published in the March 23 Globe and Mail.

A pipeline would service the export of Alberta tar sands product to refiners in the US and Asia, while a parallel line would import the light oil condensate that is an essential input to extraction.

A three-person panel established by the Canadian government and its National Energy Board will review Enbridge’s application.

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: 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.

Josh Patterson, legal counsel for West Coast Environmental Law, told the May 3 Vancouver Sun: “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.”

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.

A multi-billion dollar gas processing plant planned near Fort Nelson would be the largest such facility in North America, and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the province.

Another plant is proposed in the same region.

Indigenous and other communities in the gas fields oppose the gas wells and any processing plants.

In the December 22 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.”

The BC Environmental Assessment Office has told the 800-member community that its concerns over clean air fall outside the parameters of its 100-year-old treaty with the government of Canada.

Public protest has recently halted or slowed several exploratory coal bed, natural gas extraction projects. The biggest victory was in the Flathead River Valley adjacent to the US border in southeast BC.

The provincial government has been obliged to declare a halt to all coal, gas and other mining developments there (though not to forest cutting, tourism development, and road building).

Meanwhile, drilling plans are proceeding near Fernie, BC, by none other than the infamous British Petroleum.

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 complain 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.

A May 19 Green Left Weekly article by Renfrey Clarke said 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. Refining it also releases large amounts of CO2.

Gas fields 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 was banned by the state of New York because it pollutes underground water.

Fossil fuel extraction is set to expand in yet another form: coal.

Coal 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

British Columbia is a major producer and exporter of coal. It exported about 30 million tonnes of the dirty stuff in 2009.

Most of BC’s coal is produced through mountaintop 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 salmon and other valuable fish stocks. They drain into one of the largest shellfish habitats in North America.

A significant citizen protest movement has arisen to oppose the mine.

[Abridged from Rabble. Roger Annis is a social rights and trade union activist in Vancouver, BC.]

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