A National Geographic article on a proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would send oilsands crude from Alberta to the B.C. coast for shipment to Asia is raising alarm bells and fuelling debate over the project.
The $5.5-billion project is opposed by some First Nations, environmental groups, fishermen and communities that are concerned about possible spills in the Great Bear rainforest or from oil tankers along the rugged coast.
The magazine article, entitled "Pipeline Through Paradise," raises the spectre of a major spill if a supertanker were to run aground. It points to the sinking of the B.C. ferry Queen of the North in the same area in 2006.
"Giant tankers — some nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall, loaded with condensate or up to 2.15 million barrels of crude — would thread between a jigsaw of islands to and from Kitimat," reads the article. "When the Gitga'at people of Hartley Bay discuss the proposed Northern Gateway project, an oil pipeline that would turn these same waters into a supertanker expressway, they always mention the Queen," it says.
"The accident taught them two lessons, they say. No matter how safe the ship, the most mundane human error can sink it. And when disaster strikes, they alone will be left to clean up the mess."
A spokesman for Enbridge Inc., the Calgary-based company behind the pipeline proposal, says the article is fair as far as it goes, but doesn't include both sides of the story.
"They didn't use any of the information we gave them on the safety measures we have in place, particularly marine safety measures, that we have been proposing," said Paul Stanway. "It would mitigate to a large extent some of the concerns they expressed in the article."
"We'd have very strict conditions on the type of vessel that would be allowed to use the terminal at Kitimat," Stanway added. "They would only accept the most modern, double-hulled vessels with a B.C. pilot on board."
The federally appointed Joint Review Panel expects to begin hearings on the project in January in communities along the proposed pipeline route and the northern B.C. coast.
A lobby group opposed to West Coast tanker traffic has praised the magazine article, saying it puts the issue into perspective.
"The profound choice is a human one and I think the article distills it to that," said Eric Swanson of the Dogwood Initiative's No Tanker campaign in Victoria. "You've got dozens of communities saying no, saying they can't be bought."
"The choice for me is, are we as British Columbians and Canadians the type of people who will force the risk of catastrophe on these unwilling communities?"
Stanway doesn't think the article will have any impact on the final decision by the panel. Swanson disagrees.
"It may compel more people to become involved. The readership of National Geographic is international and huge and there's a lot of readers in British Columbia."
The federal government supports Northern Gateway.
Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was in Calgary this week talking about new research into pipeline safety and the value of the oilsands.
"Canada has a vision to be a global superpower, so it's critically important that we stay at the forefront of research and development," he said. "The oilsands are an enormous resource for both Alberta and for Canada."
"Clearly the oil produced there has to be shipped and pipelines is the way to do it. This government is supportive of the Keystone-XL Pipeline and Gateway. Gateway would open up the Asia market to Canadian exports."