A demand for a level playing field – ban ALL oil tankers from Canadian waters or abandon Bill C-48

Growing up a Saskatchewan farm boy, my concept of oceans was a bit inane. Oceans of wheat were common enough but real oceans were mythical heartless things that, to my landlubbing mind, were nothing but bottomless death traps. Granted, they did cough up some fish now and then, in exchange for inevitably trying to drown all comers. The boats always sank, because those were the stories that made the flatland news. It was conceivable that oceans had some redeeming qualities, from shore anyway, but when I finally got to see the beautiful BC coastline, I was awestruck. I remember peering out towards the beautiful Georgia Strait and considering that oceans might not be as singularly murderous as I’d thought.

Later on, I was lucky enough to stand on ocean shores in eastern Canada, looking out at equally majestic views of the Northumberland Strait. Maritimers also have that special bond with the ocean that west coasters do, one borne of lifelong familiarity with coves and waves and the smell of salty air, just as I have a natural affiliation with dust and stubble and hay fever.  

One thing we all have in common, the bicoastal water trusters and the stubble-jumpers, is a species at risk catalog. These lists are a sign of the times, of our growing respect for what’s left of nature, the part that isn’t irredeemably trampled by the lifestyle requirements of 7 billion people. Prairie people have a set of endangered species that must not be disturbed during certain times of year. A burrowing owl, for example, is simultaneously an utter delight and a tiny implacable nightmare if encountered on a site destined for any industrial activity, whether a solar farm or a pipeline. Same goes for sage grouse, ferruginous hawks, and everything down to tadpoles. On the coasts, various whales and other unfathomable ocean life are equally endangered. These aren’t complaints, and the protection is a good thing. We now respect habitat far more than we used to.  

Having absorbed the majesty of both coasts, it is therefore perplexing to find that one side is deemed worthy of a particular protection, and the other not. The Globe and Mail noticed the same absurdity. The federal government has passed bill C-48, currently before the senate, which will ban oil-bearing tankers from the northern coast of BC. As federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau put it when celebrating the bill’s passage, “These strong measures against potential oil pollution are what Canadians want and expect…”   

Now, why is a stretch of BC coastline deemed to be so valuable that tankers cannot be allowed anywhere near it, whereas the rest of the country’s oceanfront is fair game? Is an endangered beluga whale on the east coast less worthy of protection than a west coast whale?  

This inconvenient truth brings us to the sad heart of the matter. Oil from the US, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Azerbaijan, and Nigeria flows into Canadian waters. Much comes down the Gulf of St. Lawrence in tankers, through the territory of more than a few endangered species. Yet astonishingly there are no calls for a tanker ban on the east coast.  

As a matter of fact, there are no calls for a tanker ban on BC’s south coast either. Come to think of it, tankers of diesel and gasoline are welcomed with open arms. Everywhere in Canada petroleum tankers are ok if, well, people need them, except for one glaring, political, irrational example where it is not.  

The only commercial oil in the world that is being prevented from moving in Canadian waters is Canadian heavy oil. And note the shocking totality of the isolation: it’s not that home-grown oil requires safer transport, or better tankers, or more tugboat escorts. The oil is being BANNED from movement. Saudi oil moves serenely past beluga whales, who would surely surface with the universal “WTF” look on their faces if they knew the whole situation, as does Nigerian oil and any other oil from the wrong side of the tracks. These jurisdictions have little or no known environmental standards, and the Canadian government could not care less. Heavy oil travels the world daily – Venezuelan, Iranian, etc. heavy crude oils – without trouble, and Canadian oil can too, if it can get out of Canadian waters. But it can’t.  

It’s bizarre but true: oil tankers are acceptable anywhere in Canadian waters, for any reason, EXCEPT if Canadian producers want to send oil to market. That is why the Trans Mountain expansion is being blockaded; it is because the wrong people want to put oil on a boat. A steady stream of oil/petroleum product transportation on Canadian waterways brings oil to Canadian refineries, and many smaller vessels bring needed fuel to smaller centers everywhere accessible by boat. Yet of all the products on all the vessels going to all the places on Canada’s coastlines, through all the endangered species’ habitats, only outbound Canadian-produced oil is not allowed on the waterways by bill C-48.  

No one should be surprised at the outrage in Alberta. No other country in the world would singularly undermine one of its own vital regions with a standard not applied to foreigners, or even to other parts of the country. We know this strangulation is in the name of climate change, but it is blisteringly obvious that killing Canada’s energy sector by driving away investment will not change global oil consumption one iota. Oil simply comes from somewhere else, such as one of the jurisdictions in which 48,000 km of petroleum pipeline are being constructed presently. The “No More Fossil Fuel Development” battle-cry applies only to Canadian producers, who have been internationally designated as the biggest problem in the environment. No one blockades coal shipments from BC waters.  

Western Canada has a right to demand a level playing field. If we must endure Bill C-48, then it must be expanded. That’s right, make it bigger. Much bigger. This is a direct call to the federal government to expand Bill C-48 to ban all oil tanker traffic from Canadian waterways. All of it, all the time. If Alberta oil is too dangerous for our waterways, so is Saudi oil. So shut it all down. No more tankers from anywhere allowed in Canadian waters. No more US oil moving down the coast through Canadian waters. If there is to be any ban at all, it must be consistently applied.  

Critics of Canadian environmental performance are demanding that the energy industry pull its weight. Well, banning all oil tanker traffic would be pulling our weight and then some. Even Field Marshal Gerald Butts could throw an enormous bone to the UN, Stand.Earth, 350.org, the Tides Foundation, and anyone else involved in the well-planned endgame of destroying Canada’s energy industry for reasons only they understand (as in, if they want to save the environment, why are they going after the 1 percent problem and not the 80 percent). Here would be a massive move on the part of Canada’s energy industry, a divide-bridging event like the country has never seen.  

Canada could be an international environmental hero, and forced to better utilize home-grown oil supplies. Oil can move by rail where it needs to, as is being proven since new pipelines are verboten, and internal supply/demand issues could be worked out. Yes, refining and transportation would need rewiring to handle Canadian oil supplies. Yes, there would be a price penalty, but perhaps not as much as people think if Canada was forced to look inward for supply.  

If Bill C-48 becomes law, it must be universally applied to Canadian waters. There is no possible rational justification to single out one native source as unacceptably dangerous when any other oil is not a problem. Any environmental group that sincerely has the environment on their agenda would applaud the move also; how could they not celebrate the removal of all oil tankers from Canadian waters?  

The obscene option remains of enforcing C-48 as is. If that happens, the federal government should at least have the honesty to rename it the Gerald Butts Memorial UN-sycophantic Climate-neutral Confederation-smashing Act. Give credit where it’s due.  

But it shouldn’t pass as is. Enough of the unbalanced madness. Western Canada’s landlocked provinces demand a level playing field.  

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Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here.  E-mail Terry.