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Should Burrard Inlet Be Oil Tanker Free?

July 17, 2010

July 2007, 232,000 litres of oil spurted from a ruptured pipeline and into Burrard Inlet causing the closure of nearby beaches.

On July 5th Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson held a special council meeting to discuss the current status of oil tankers in Burrard Inlet. Oil tankers have become a hot topic lately as traffic through the Port of Vancouver continues to grow every year. Vancouver is currently the only crude-oil export terminal on Canada’s West Coast with crude oil exports hitting 4 million metric tonnes, or about 29 million barrels. Oil exports through the port of Vancouver carry with them a substantial risk, not only to Vancouver’s inner harbour, but also to the surrounding marine ecosystem. I n a June 17 special op-ed to the Province, Peter Baker, a North Vancouver oceanographer and computer scientist, used his knowledge of the shipping channel in Burrard Inlet to paint a nightmarish picture of the consequences of even a small error in the narrow channel: a grounded tanker, a rapidly receding high tide, an inevitable breaking apart of the ship, and a spill of its thousands of barrels of cargo. Oil booms would be ineffective, given the area’s large currents, so crude oil would rapidly spread throughout the harbour.

The outcome of the Special Council Meeting was a unanimously passed motion requesting that the Metro Vancouver Port Cities Committee (MVPCC) investigate the issue of oil tanker traffic in the region. They said the committee, which represents all of the waterside communities in the region, should evaluate the risks of increased and planned tanker traffic as well as clarify who has liability for the impacts of a spill.

But, risk is only part of the issue. We also need to consider the contradiction of the City of Vancouver trying to become the “greenest city in the world” while being a major export hub for the Alberta oil sands. Even if we could reduce the risk of a spill to zero, do we want to continue to enable and even promote the continued expansion of the World’s most environmentally destructive industrial projects? I for one have difficulty reconciling our green city goals with participation in oil sands extraction.

There are obvious financial gains to be had with increased oil exports through the port of Vancouver. However, we have to ask, at what costs are we willing to seek these financial gains? It is also not clear how much the City of Vancouver actually benefits financially while the residents of this beautiful city take the risk. The greenhouse gas footprint that we are participating in is huge, the pipelines transporting the oil pose a risk across the province and our reputation and moral well-being are at risk. I’m just not sure that any financial gains are worth the sacrifices we are required to make to continue to allow oil tankers in and out of Burrard Inlet.

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