Canada is a second home to me. For seven of the last eight years, I’ve lived in Victoria, British Columbia. Not a week went by when a clear view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca didn’t include a tanker sailing either too or from Vancouver on its way to pick up or deliver another shipment of oil that had arrived from Alberta’s tar sand operations.
To most British Columbians, an event like the spill caused when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in March 1989 is a nightmare waiting to happen. As I prepare to move back to Victoria later this summer, I share the disappointment many of my distant neighbours must be feeling this morning with the news of the decision by Canada’s government to spend $4.5 billion ($3.45 billion US) to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline project from Kinder Morgan. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has decided opposition to the project from British Columbia will not be tolerated. The pipeline is, according to Canada’s finance minister, “an investment in Canada’s future.”
If the Trans Mountain project goes forward as planned, the number of oil tankers traveling through the Port of Vancouver will increase from the current 60 per year to more than 400, raising the likelihood of a large spill at some point in the future from likely to nearly inevitable. The consequences of this event wouldn’t be limited to Canadian waters. Puget Sound would be severely impacted as well.
But as bad as a spill would be, it’s not the main reason I’m upset by Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision. The frustration I’m feeling this morning stems almost entirely from the fact that Canada, like so many countries, continues to make the same mistakes over and over again while apparently anticipating that somehow different results will follow.
It’s true, of course, that Alberta relies heavily upon the revenue oil generates. But this continued reliance stems from the fact that it has consistently resisted investing its oil revenues on cleaner energy development or a sovereign wealth fund that could have eventually provided it a means of escaping its addiction to oil money. Unlike Norway, which opted to invest the profits from its North Sea oil operations so that when prices and production inevitably declined it could live off the dividends, Alberta spent its oil fortune as quickly as it came in. Each boom was predictably followed by a bust, which was followed by a boom and another bust. Each time Alberta demonstrated it had learned nothing from the experience.
When Justin Trudeau’s father was prime minister, Alberta was so angered by suggestions the oil industry be nationalized and the wealth shared with Canada as a whole that it threatened to scuttle Canada’s constitutional negotiations, with some even suggesting secession. Now Canada is poised to spend billions rewarding the province’s consistent lack of foresight.
The whole story sounds eerily familiar to someone who grew up in the American west where billions in federal money get spent on water projects, cheap oil leases on public land, below-cost timber sales, and grazing subsidies while everyone grumbles about federal interference in local affairs. Alberta, like Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and other conservative states, is eager to take from the federal government but not willing to accept any strings.
I would like to think this time will be different, but I’m not holding my breath. I’d like to think that in exchange for its $4.5 billion Ottawa will insist Alberta begin investing seriously in a more sustainable future that includes renewable energy and the tech industry instead of dirty oil, but so far there are no signs that it will. I would like to think that Prime Minister Trudeau will soon be announcing that Canada will be making similar investments with the profits from this pipeline purchase, but I suspect any benefits the Canadian government receives will simply be poured back into its general fund without any of it being earmarked for cleaner economic development.
Meanwhile, if a spill does occur it will be British Columbia that gets stuck with most of the tab for the cleanup, while as many as 10,000 people that rely upon the ocean to make their living will be sacrificed on the altar of big oil. Even without a spill climate change is already threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people in British Columbia and around the globe. So thank you, Justin Trudeau. Because of you when I return to Victoria later this year my first visit to the ocean will be bittersweet.
Other recent environmental stories by Craig that you may be interested in:
- Donald Trump’s Monumental Mistake (inspired by a visit to the original Bears Ears National Monument)
- Why Taoism’s Best Idea & Our Most Radical Environmental Restoration Plans Are Made For Each Other