What we can learn from the anti-pipeline campaigns of the 1970s

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An oil pipeline in Alaska. Image: Gillphoto/Wikimedia Commons

On Friday, students around the world will go on strike in support of action on climate change, which is also a key issue in this year's federal election campaign. But activist and advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm on fossil fuels for generations, so what can be learned from the campaigns of the past? In this excerpt from Passion and Persistence: Fifty Years of the Sierra Club in British Columbia, 1969-2019, Diane Pinch recounts how a spate of oil spills in the 1970s spurred people to act on Canada's West Coast and across the continent. 

In 1969, inadequate safety precautions caused a blowout to occur at an offshore oil well off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. The explosion was so powerful the ocean floor cracked in five places, allowing crude oil to spew out at 4,000 litres per hour. This went on for a month before it could be stopped, resulting in 11 million litres spreading along the coast for 55 kilometres, killing thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals.

The Santa Barbara spill sent shock waves through the U.S. as the media showed photos of oil-covered birds. New environmental legislation was passed and people wanted change. In the two years after the spill there was a doubling of Sierra Club memberships in the U.S.

It was the worst oil spill in North American history -- until 20 years later, when an Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit a reef and spilled 40 million litres off the coast of Alaska. That spill killed a quarter million seabirds, hundreds of sea otters and harbour seals, 250 bald eagles and more than 20 killer whales. About 2,000 kilometres of shoreline was affected and oil continues to wash up every year. Exxon eventually paid $125 million in criminal fines and $900 million for civil penalties.

Canada also had its own major oil disaster on the east coast in 1970 when the aging Arrow oil tanker ran aground during a storm. It spilled about 9.5 million litres of oil that ended up on the beaches of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, affecting 3,000 kilometres of shoreline and costing millions of dollars to clean up over a period of months.

In 1968, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, resulting in a proposal to build a 1,300-kilometre pipeline south across Alaska to the port of Valdez, where the oil would then be transported by tankers along the coast of B.C. to markets in the U.S. There was much opposition to the Alaska pipeline. A nine-volume environmental impact statement was put forward in 1972, followed by a number of court actions, resulting in a rise in public awareness about the risks involved in pipeline construction.

David Anderson, member of Parliament for Esquimalt-Saanich from 1968 to 1972, in his capacity as a member of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, was one of the litigants in the (failed) effort to stop this pipeline in the early 1970s. With memories of the Santa Barbara and Arrow oil spills fresh in their minds, Canadians were overwhelmingly against this proposal. In 1971, the B.C. legislature passed a resolution opposing tanker traffic on the west coast.

The federal government established the Department of the Environment, and in 1972, the House of Commons unanimously supported the motion that tanker traffic along B.C.’s coastline from Alaska to Puget Sound would be detrimental to Canadian interests.

In 1973, after a sharp rise in oil prices in the U.S., the U.S. Senate passed an act authorizing the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The federal government imposed a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic along the Inside Passage (Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound) -- a decision based on the recommendations of the Commons special committee on environmental control, chaired by David Anderson, the environment minister and MP from Victoria.

Not long after the moratorium on tanker traffic was announced, the Canadian government extended it to all offshore oil and gas activities on the west coast. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, one of the world's largest systems, was completed in 1977. It was not until the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 that B.C. announced a similar moratorium for waters not under federal control.

Alberta had meanwhile been extracting oil on a large scale since the 1940s and moving it through various provinces via pipelines. These pipelines were designed to deliver oil being sold by American companies to (largely) American companies. In 1976, a consortium of six companies announced their intention to support a Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline Company proposal to construct a pipeline that would run from Kitimat to Edmonton. The idea was to connect the new Alaskan supply of oil to an existing pipeline system running from Edmonton to the U.S. Midwest, where the projected demand was located.

Rosemary Fox, in her capacity as chair of Sierra Club B.C.’s Lower Mainland group at the time, characterized the proposal to build a terminal at Kitimat as "one of the most serious single threats to the environment faced by British Columbia, without assuring any significant benefit to either B.C. or Canada." The club sent telegrams to the federal and provincial cabinets demanding that plans for dealing with hazards and construction be made public, that impact studies on the oil transport, port and pipeline facilities be developed, and that a 90-day interval between impact assessment and public hearings be instituted. It also presented submissions to the National Energy Board hearings.

In 1977, the federal government appointed Andrew Thompson as commissioner of the West Coast Oil Ports Inquiry and asked him to consider the environmental, social and navigational aspects of oil port proposals (Kitimat and other possibilities, including Vancouver, had been suggested). He noted that there were "general public concerns," which he saw as nonetheless real fears not to be dismissed:

"Despite my familiarity with this history of determined opposition to tanker traffic, I have been surprised to find it so universal. In my preliminary meetings throughout the province and in the formal and community hearings of the Inquiry held to date, the oil port proposals have inspired few advocates other than the proponent companies themselves." 

Following the filing of the results of this inquiry, the federal departments of environment, fisheries, and transportation rejected the Kitimat oil port proposal in 1978.

Excerpted with permission from Passion and Persistence: Fifty Years of the Sierra Club in British Columbia, 1969-2019 by Diane Pinch (Harbour Publishing, September 2019). Pinch, a retired psychologist and long-time volunteer with Sierra Club B.C., was first introduced to the group in 1975. She has spent the last five years digging through the archives and interviewing colourful and charismatic Sierra Club B.C. members to put together a faithful narration of the challenges and successes the club has faced over the last 50 years. She lives in Victoria, B.C.

Image: Gillphoto/Wikimedia Commons

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