The consequences of an oil spill in Canada’s West Coast waters

Publication - June 26, 2010
If the Canadian government approves a proposal from pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. to build twin Northern Gateway pipelines from Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat on northern B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest, an oil spill in the region is inevitable. Another company, Kinder Morgan, has a long-term plan to bring over 200 crude oil tankers annually to the southern West Coast near Vancouver. Today, the company already brings two tar sands oil tankers through B.C. waters. Along with oil spills come many consequences.

Canada’s reputation

British Columbia’s coast is the jewel of Canada, known around the world for its old growth forests, abundant marine life and rich heritage. Our coastline is a part of our Canadian identity. An oil spill could damage our international reputation.

World-renowned Great Bear Rainforest

Stretching along the B.C. coast from Vancouver to Alaska, the Great Bear Rainforest is the largest tract of intact coastal temperate rainforest left in the world. Once the site of conflict, it is now the place where collaboration among loggers, environmentalists, First Nations and government resulted in the largest rainforest conservation package in Canadian history. An oil spill could have a devastating impact on the region and the model of conservation.


Tourism is the third largest industry in the province. The B.C. government’s goal is to grow annual tourism revenues to $18 billion by 2015. With a strong focus on outdoor recreation, tourism has been identified as a primary growth opportunity in rural British Columbia(1). An oil spill would damage the natural landscape that this industry relies upon for its growth.


Pipeline projects are generally not major job creators. If built, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines would permanently employ between 45 and 200 people across the 1,170-kilometre route. There would be an increase in jobs for the construction of the pipelines, but Enbridge will employ experienced crews, likely brought in from outside the region with only 15 per cent of construction job going to locals(2). Economic development is needed along the pipeline route. However, projects that support long-term jobs and don’t put existing economies at risk are needed.

Whales and salmon

Our coastal waters are home to northern and southern orca (killer whale) pods as well as transient pods that use the northern Pacific as a migratory route. Humpback and grey whales can also be seen in B.C.’s coastal waters.

The lifeblood of coastal communities, wild Pacific salmon pass through coastal waters on their way to thousands of freshwater streams to spawn every year. Salmon have been in great decline over the past decade. A judicial inquiry has been ordered into the collapse of B.C. salmon runs(3). Every opportunity to preserve their migration routes and spawning grounds must be seized and a precautionary approach to habitat management must be taken. An oil spill would forever negatively impact the habitat of whales, salmon and other important ocean species.

First Nations opposition

Dozens of First Nations communities have lived on B.C.’s coast for millennia. Art Sterritt of the Coastal First Nations speaks of the impact of a potential oil spill on coastal First Nations communities: “If we had a tanker accident on the coast of British Columbia it would literally wipe [out] all of our cultures, all of our salmon, all of our groundfish.”(4)

Coastal First Nations — whose territories would all be negatively impacted by an oil spill from the oil tankers brought to the coast by the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines — issued a declaration: “…in upholding our ancestral laws, rights and responsibilities, we declare that oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters.”(5)

First Nations have stated that they would do everything in their power to stop crude oil tankers in their territories, including legal action and putting boats in the water to stop an oil tanker(6). This would result in lengthy delays and higher business costs. Opposition to this project presents long-term financial and legal risks for any of its partners or investors.

On the 21st anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, more than 150 First Nations, businesses, environmental organizations and prominent Canadians signed on to the campaign to stop the pipelines and oil tankers proposed by Enbridge(7). The federal environmental assessment for the Northern Gateway project has received more than 2,000 letters of comment from Canadians and First Nations(8), the majority of which are in opposition to the project. And in May 2010, more than 1,000 people flooded the tiny hamlet of Kitamaat Village in northern B.C., where the pipeline would end and the oil tankers begin, to oppose the Enbridge project and stand up for their coastline.(9)