Joint letter from nineteen community groups and environmental organizations seeking commitment from Senators to support Bill C-48, the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act
Bill C-48 is about protecting a unique region in northern British Columbia – Queen Charlotte Sound, Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance (the “north coast”) – from the introduction of the risks posed by large tankers carrying crude and persistent oil. Crude oil tankers have never plied north coast waters, despite repeated proposals in the region over the past five decades for tankers to import crude oil from international destinations, to export crude oil from the oil sands, or indeed to develop offshore petroleum reserves in the north coast itself. None of these proposals have come to pass because Indigenous nations and communities in the region, supported by many British Columbians and Canadians, have emphasized again and again that there is too much at stake in the north coast to expose to the risk of a large oil spill.
The north coast ecosystem is a global ecological treasure. Its marine waters and estuaries are inseparably interconnected with the Great Bear Rainforest, the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest left on earth.[i] The well-being of human communities in the region is integrally tied to ensuring a pristine north coast marine ecosystem. Ocean-based businesses on the north coast (such as commercial fisheries and tourism) generate $1.2 billion each year and are responsible for the employment of 30 percent of the regional population in the north coast. According to the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, these economic activities would be seriously impacted by the ecological devastation of a large oil spill.[ii]
Canada’s investment of $30 million in the Great Bear Rainforest has to date yielded direct investment of $286 M, created 100+ new businesses and permanent jobs and yielded $85M in tax revenues—a return of 950 percent on the initial investment. It has proven possible to generate employment and truly sustainable prosperity in the region without resorting to oil ports and exports; and that is what northerners have chosen to do.[iii]
The north coast is home to over 400 species of fish, and it contains the majority of the total habitat for anadromous salmon on Canada’s west coast. It is also home to over 25 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises and pinnipeds, and supports 95 percent of breeding seabird populations in British Columbia.[iv] North coast waters are the only known location in the entire world for 9,000 year-old ancient sponge reefs. Scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada have identified almost half of the north coast’s marine waters as special “Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas” using criteria drawn from the Convention on Biological Diversity.[v]
The area covered by the Bill’s moratorium is inherently more dangerous than coastal waters elsewhere in Canada: sudden and violent storms create confused sea states with high waves at short intervals—all of which is extremely dangerous to large vessels.[vi] Not only are they less manoeuverable than smaller boats, their length and weight subjects them to twisting and bending that can threaten hull integrity. That same weather would prevent effective spill response up to 98 percent of the time in winter, and 65 percent of the time in summer, based on wave height alone. The region has seen many wrecks of smaller vessels and groundings are a common occurrence. This is not a place that can be made safe for oil tanker traffic.
The health of north coast waters is part of the very identity of its residents. Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine First Nations at the forefront of support for Bill C-48, recently put it this way:
When the Northern Gateway pipeline was proposed, our coastal leaders developed a declaration reaffirming our stance against oil tankers in our waters. Today, as we urge politicians to pass Bill C-48 to ensure a permanent ban, the words in that declaration still ring true, just as they have for thousands of years.
Our homeland for at least the past 14,000 years, the declaration stated, is a unique but fragile part of the world — a temperate rainforest where land and sea connect in a puzzle of islands, inlets and narrow, rocky channels. Our very existence as a people depends on these ecosystems and the healthy fish and wildlife that live here; they gave rise to our Nations, our cultures and livelihoods. That’s why our declaration reiterated our responsibility to care for these lands and waters for the sake of all future generations.[vii]
The identity and well-being of non-Indigenous north coast residents is also tied to ensuring the health of the region’s marine waters. Virtually all local governments in this coastal region have taken positions opposed to crude oil tankers on the north coast, as has the Union of BC Municipalities. Citizens have repeatedly emphasized the need to protect the north coast from oil tanker traffic, for example in the 2014 Kitimat plebiscite opposing the Northern Gateway project (which proposed an oil tanker terminal in Kitimat), and through the 12,000 Canadians who signed a House of Commons petition in 2018 to pass Bill C-48.
We know that some are calling for Bill C-48 to be abandoned or gutted in the name of “compromise” (for example, by allowing a corridor for oil tankers or requiring that the Act’s prohibition be revisited every few years). However Bill C-48 is already a compromise, since many among the signatories to this letter have urged that Bill C-48 go farther, to apply to all oil products and smaller oil tank barges that pass through the region en route to Alaska. Bill C-48 represents an important and welcome minimum legal protection for the north coast by preventing the introduction of risks posed by tankers carrying crude and persistent oil, finally taking this issue off the table so that it need not be fought over and over again. Any weakening of its protections would not be a compromise but rather would strip the Bill of its purpose.
For half a century north coast residents and supporters have adamantly maintained that the unique north coast ecosystem, and the livelihoods, culture and way of life it supports, must be fully and permanently protected from the risks posed by oil tankers. We respectfully ask for your help to heed these calls by speaking to support the passage of Bill C-48, without amendments that would weaken the Bill, during third reading debate in the Senate.
[vi] Environment Canada Marine Weather Hazards Manual , 1992, page 113; Owen S. Lange, The Veil of Chaos, Living with Weather Along the British Columbia Coast, Environment Canada, 2003, P. 160.Golden Spruce passage: