Jack Emberly.

Jack Emberly.

Along the Fraser: Opposition to blind progress

“Impossible to believe anybody who thinks there won’t be an incident,” if oil tankers sail on coast.

“Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress” – John Muir, American naturalist.

I’m watching a movie with Gerry Pinel about a world blindly dependent on oil.

It’s a topic, Pinel, a confessed “recovering oil executive,” knows a lot about.

Groundswell, the Raincoast Foundation film, features two world- class surfers riding huge waves off B.C.’s rugged northwest coast. Neither Gerry or I surf, but the film’s not about that. It’s about a special place.

The Great Bear – one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world – stretches from the tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska.

“It’s a place,” says B.C. surfer Chris Devries, “on the verge of change, against the will of people.”

People like Heiltsuk First Nations Jessie Housty, seen collecting the medicinal plants her great-grandmothers used.

“Our entire identity,” she says, “is tied to the place we come from and how we interact with it. Anything that threatens this place also threatens the people, also threatens the culture, also threatens the root of our entire existence here.”

It’s a place that’s home to cougars, wolves, salmon, grizzlies, the white Kermode – or “spirit” bears –and a place, thanks to a decision of the National Energy Board, where tankers loaded with Alberta’s tar sands bitumen could ply through pods of humpback whales, orcas, and “rafts” of sea otters, if Enbridge satisfies 209 “conditions.”

They’re irrelevant, says, Raincoast’s director of marine studies, Brian Falconer. He’s sailed through and around rugged Douglas Channel on the tanker’s route for 30 years.

“It’s impossible to believe anybody who thinks there won’t be an incident,” says Falconer, captain of the Achiever, the sailboat that carried the surfers here.

The Heiltsuk agree.

“The tides through here are some of the strongest in the world,” says William Housty. “You could only imagine how fast that oil would travel to the estuaries and rivers systems, and when you affect one, everything else is affected.”

Pinel paints a frightening picture of an incident.

“The grain ship that spilled bunker oil into English Bay was little compared to even mid-sized oil tankers,” he tells me. “They’re 245-metres long, holding 80,000 metric tonnes, or 500,000 barrels. There’s seven barrels per tonne. Multiply that by 42, the gallons per barrel. That comes to 500,000 times 42 times 3.78 [litres per gallon], or 75-80 million [88,905,600 on my calculator] litres.”

Pinel pauses to let you visualize the scene.

“Even if you dumped just three per cent of the cargo of an oil tanker in Douglas Channel, that’s 1,000 times more than the spill in English Bay. Scary enough for you?”

It is, if you note oil spill facts and history. Oil response firm, Worldocean says only about 15 per cent of oil spills in sea water is ever recovered, despite official claims.

The risks posed by tankers along the irreplaceable Great Bear Rainforest – an eco-tourism gold mine –are too high.

The NEB’s 209 conditions are meaningless except to an industry blinded by profits.

Dr. Chris Darimont, Raincoast director of science, predicts the project will be stopped by First Nations challenges in court or on site.

“If I had 15 minutes with one of these oil executives, I would suggest he didn’t have a clue about the power, the defiance, of a people absolutely united in opposition.”

But, would anyone driven by blind progress listen?


Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.