Most British Columbians, and many Canadians, probably believe there is a moratorium preventing oil tankers from plying the waters off the fragile and beautiful B.C. north coast. After all, hasn’t the federal government banned oil tankers from entering Dixon Entrance, the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound since 1972?

Certainly, most citizens support the tanker moratorium. Public opinion polling has consistently shown that three quarters of B.C. residents want the tanker moratorium to continue. Especially since the Exxon Valdez disaster of 20 years ago (and, indeed, since the 2006 sinking of the Queen of the North) there is much concern about environmentally damaging oil spills.

Surprise, surprise. The Harper Conservative government (and their allies in the Campbell Liberal government of B.C.) have simply made the moratorium disappear. Indeed, they deny it ever existed at all.

The disappearance of the moratorium was most recently confirmed by the Joint Review Panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the National Energy Board looking into the Enbridge Gateway Pipeline proposal. On December 4th, 2009 the panel clearly stated: “It is the Government of Canada’s position that there is presently no moratorium on tanker traffic in the coast waters of British Columbia.”

Former Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn has argued for the last few years that there never was a moratorium. Instead, he says there’s only ever been a voluntary agreement between the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards and representatives of the U.S. tanker industry to keep oil tankers out of the Inside Passage. This despite the fact that Natural Resources Canada and other federal agencies repeatedly made written reference to the moratorium in documents published as recently as 2003.

This might all be an esoteric debate about history and bureaucracy, were it not for the imminent danger that hundreds of oil tankers will soon be sailing in and out of the Port of Kitimat.

Why has the tanker moratorium suddenly gone missing after more than 37 years?

It’s the tar sands, stupid.

The Harper government has repeatedly shown that, when it comes to promotion of the Alberta tar sands,  it will let nothing stand in the way. Not in Copenhagen and certainly not off the coast of B.C. Killing the tanker moratorium is but one example.

The Enbridge Gateway Pipeline project proposes a 1,170 kilometre pipeline to ship an average of 525,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen per day from Fort McMurray to Kitimat B.C. Approximately 225 oil tankers per year would then ship the tar sands product to Asia and California. An adjacent pipeline would move 193,000 barrels of “condensate” east from Kitimat to Fort McMurray (also known as diluent, the condensate is mostly imported from Russia and is necessary to keep the thick tar moving through the piping systems. Tankers are already bringing diluent to Kitimat, where it is now being sent to Alberta by train).

The Enbridge pipelines would cross more than 1000 rivers and streams on their way to the coast. The project is opposed by almost all the several First Nations along the pipeline route.

The Gateway pipeline proposals have galvanized west coast activists. They are demanding that Parliament pass a law to clearly ban coastal tanker traffic and are insisting on a proper inquiry into the Enbridge proposals, rather than the weak and predictable Joint Review Panel process.

Public opinion is on side with that. The real challenge is to move the Harper government aside.


Blair Redlin

Blair Redlin is a researcher with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, based in Burnaby. In addition to bargaining support for CUPE’s municipal sector in B.C., his research priorities include...