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Response boats work to clean up oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig. ((U.S. Coast Guard/Associated Press))

Environmentalists in B.C. say the oil spill off the U.S. coast should serve as a warning about risks the oil and gas industry could pose to the West Coast of Canada.

There are concerns the environmental impact of the ongoing spill from the well of the wrecked Deepwater Horizon drill rig could be worse than the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster that devastated Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.

Jennifer Lash, director of the Living Oceans Society, says if a proposal to build a crude oil pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific is allowed to go ahead, B.C. will be at risk of a similar disaster.

Enbridge, one of North America's largest oil and gas distribution companies, wants to transport oil from the oilsands to the coast for export. Its proposed Northern Gateway project would run a twin pipeline from near Edmonton to a new marine terminal in Kitimat, B.C., for exporting petroleum and importing condensate.

Lash says that once the oil reaches the coast, it will be moved by tankers which pose a bigger danger to the environment than the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

'Clearly the situation in the Gulf of Mexico raises a lot of additional questions.'—B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner

"Apparently oil rigs are safer than tankers. So if oil rigs are safer, and the oil rig down there was the safest, with all the latest bells and whistles, and this is the result of it, then we just need to look at it and say we cannot afford to go down that road," said Lash.

"Accidents happen. The Gulf of Mexico accident is reminding us of this," she said. "And what we need is a permanent ban on oil and gas development and tanker traffic off the coast of B.C."

Provincial Environment Minister Barry Penner said it's premature to compare the situation in the Gulf of Mexico with anything in B.C., and noted that Enbridge hasn't even begun the environmental assessment process yet.

Enbridge officials have said the plan will create 4000 jobs, and point out ships have safely carried petrochemicals out of the Kitimat port for 25 years.

"Our approach here in B.C. has been we would not support any oil and gas development unless it can be done in a safe way," Penner said, adding: "Clearly the situation in the Gulf of Mexico raises a lot of additional questions."

The province is carefully watching the situation in the Gulf of Mexico, Penner said, and an environmental emergency team is standing by to help if needed.

Moratorium could be lifted: Anderson

A moratorium on oil drilling and exploration has been in place along the B.C. coast for nearly four decades, but former federal environment minister David Anderson said that could end with the Enbridge pipeline proposal.

Anderson said the company will present its proposal to the National Energy Board by next month, and he is concerned the hearing could go ahead without any promises of coastal protection from the prime minister or premier.

Anderson believes if the proposed pipeline goes ahead, the federal and provincial government could open up the West Coast to offshore drilling and exploration.

But opposition is likely to grow because of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and the memories of the Exxon Valdez, he said.

"You know, it's 20 years since the Exxon Valdez spill and there is still oil down in the rocky beaches, the pebbly beaches of Alaska, and they are still having environmental damage as the result of that spill," said Anderson.

"People now realize — up front and close from their television screen and from newspapers and radio and what have you — they realize what could happen on our coast," he said.

B.C. Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom said the provincial Liberals would consider offshore development, if the federal moratorium is removed, but he admits he's concerned about the causes of the massive oil spill fouling the Gulf of Mexico.

 A large coalition of B.C. First Nations recently declared its opposition to the proposed pipeline.