Opinion » Maxed Out

Time to take a stand on Northern Gateway


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It was almost a year ago, July 6 to be exact. The day was barely started. The weather was benign, the Earth was quiet, no earthquakes, no maelstrom. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, 63 rail tank cars filled with crude oil from the Bakkan fields of North Dakota fell under the dual forces of gravity and human error and began rolling downhill.

The small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, lay at the bottom of the hill.

Long before the new day actually dawned, when the night was still going strong at the Musi-Café, the tank cars had picked up enough speed to derail... right in the centre of town. They exploded at 1:00 a.m. Shortly thereafter Lac-Mégantic resembled a new ring of Dante's Hell and 47 people took their last breath.

A tragic combination of old technology, lack of regulatory oversight, corporate greed, human nature — gravitating as it does toward the path of least resistance — willful negligence, and just plain, old bad luck conspired to create Canada's deadliest train wreck.

And that, in short, is all you really need to know to understand how incredibly naive, shortsighted, and malignantly wrong John Weston is.

John tortured logic to death in both Whistler papers last week with his letter supporting the Northern Gateway pipeline. "Constituents have recently expressed concerns about the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project." he wrote.

No kidding?

Those "concerns" are shared by, as reported extensively, 67 per cent of the residents of British Columbia, virtually all the First Nations in the province, the people of Kitimat — who, ostensibly, would receive the lion's share of whatever benefits dribbled out of the pipeline into this province — scientists, the freakin' pipeline builder's union, and just about anyone who isn't blinded by the thought of a fast buck and a cozier relationship with that paragon of human kindness, China.

John hangs a red herring of hope on the 209 "stringent conditions" the Joint Rubber Stamp, er, Review Panel imposed on the pipeline. So consider this for a moment. Railroad tracks roll over land — hill and dale and prairie and mountain — that, for the most part, changes not at all. Ocean-going tankers float over water that ranges from calm and placid to tsunami, often in the blink of an eye.

Solid ground, absent a major earthquake, moves imperceptibly. Oceans move all the time. You can see obstacles in front of a train. Ditto a tanker, although obstacles that can ruin a tanker's day also present themselves where you can't see at all. All the forces that align to bump a train off its tracks pale in comparison to the hydraulic forces presented by the oceans' currents, tides and storms.

And, most importantly, people screw up. Over and over and over again.

In Lac-Mégantic, the people transporting the oil screwed up — or were criminally negligent — when they didn't care to inform anyone about the higher level of volatility of Bakkan crude. The owners/managers of Montreal, Main & Atlantic railway screwed up when they put their profits ahead of replacing their aging DOT-111 tank cars with more robust, thicker-walled rolling stock. They screwed up again when they decided one engineer on the train instead of two was sufficient. The engineer screwed up when he didn't set enough brakes on enough cars to keep the train from rolling downhill.

The world's oceans are littered with shipwrecks. Putting aside those of antiquity — pre-technology — and those caused by "Acts of God," none of the 209 stringent conditions will overcome the human screw -up factor.

Consider the poster child for oil tanker screw ups — the Exxon Valdez, commonly considered one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters. The causes included the captain drinking heavily and being asleep in his bunk when the third mate, perhaps due to fatigue and workload, steered the ship into Bligh Reef. Exxon Shipping failed to maintain the ship's collision avoidance system, and failed to provide adequate supervision and rest for the ship's crew. Twenty-five years later, Prince William Sound has still not recovered.

Closer to home, the Queen of the North ran aground in 2006 off Gill Island. The captain was not on the bridge. Winds were gusting, albeit only 75km/h. The crew may not have been fully trained on the autopilot equipment. There may have been hanky-panky or the fallout thereto. Whatever the totality of the reasons, none of the 209 stringent conditions would have helped.

Later today — June 17 is deadline day — the Harpocrites will announce their decision on Northern Gateway. Gee, I wonder what that will be. They will, as John did in his letter, couch their decision in terms of being science-based and in the best interests of Canada's petro-economy. They will, as John did, tout their non-existent environmental record, notwithstanding the rest of the world sees Canada's puny efforts as an epic fail by any reasonable measures.

Lord knows what Christy Clark will do, but if recent history is any indication, she'll cave faster than single-hull tanker hitting an immovable reef. After all, there are dollars involved.

And make no mistake, it is all about the dollars involved. As my buddy, Mark, used to say, "There are lots of ways to make money. The trick is figuring out what kind of whore you're comfortable being."

The Harper government doesn't care. It will play to its core because the current political landscape rewards such action. Back in the day, when there were two major political parties and the NDP played rump, the Cons and Libs would split most of the vote between them and one of them needed somewhere in the mid 40 per cent of the vote to form a majority government. Now, with the NDP and Libs replaying the Reform/PC split of the middle and left vote and the Green party siphoning off enough to make a difference, Harpo can win a majority with just over a third of votes cast. So why be anything but hardline?

This leaves those of us opposed to Northern Gateway with two clear strategic options. The first will be civil and uncivil disobedience. Lock 'em up in court and stop 'em in the forests of northern B.C. We need only remember the clashes in Clayoquot Sound to understand the efficacy of this tactic.

More importantly, we need to stop voting stupidly next year when federal elections roll around. Let me be brutally honest here — a vote for Green is a vote for the Conservatives. And while I have no hope the leaders of the NDP and Liberal party will ever pull their heads out of their arses and come together the way Reform and PCs did, we live in hope enough voters will cast ballots for one or the other of them and at least put the Cons back in minority territory where they can do somewhat less damage.

The least we can do is turf talking parrots like Mr. Weston.