Posts Tagged ‘Kitimat’

Pipelines to the Coasts

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

The arguments over two new North American pipelines out of the Alberta oil sands – the Keystone XL Pipeline to the Texas coast, and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat on the coast of British Columbia – get ever shriller. The Harper Government, once known as the Conservative Party of Canada, is committed to both pipelines. Now hearings have begun on the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and they should be particularly worth watching.

The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to Kitimat on the Douglas Channel (

The Northern Gateway pipeline would be aimed west from the Alberta oil sands, through the mountains to the BC coast. The coast is remote, wet, indented by deep fjords, and sparsely populated by both indigenous and non-indigenous people.

Douglas Channel, near Kitimat, one of the world's most extensive and beautiful fjords (

The Northern Gateway pipeline would end at Kitimat, 90 km from open coastal waters (

The Douglas Channel is one of the very deepest, longest and most spectacular fjords on the planet, 90 km from Kitimat to the coast.
Kitimat is a town of about 12,000 that was carefully designed and built in the 1950s to serve as an aluminum refinery by Alcan – bauxite is shipped in, and refined into aluminum. The process requires a lot of energy, and at Kitimat it comes from a huge hydro dam built especially for this purpose.

Kitimat, at the eastern end of the fjord, combines natural beauty, and golf course, with industrial development along the shore. (

A little later LNG built a natural gas pipeline from the Alberta gas fields, to take advantage of the port built for the aluminum tankers, and ship liquid natural gas, at -160 degrees C, across the Pacific to Asian buyers.

Now, the same logic has brought Enbridge to Kitimat. The closest tanker port to the oil fields of Alberta, with a short route to Asia, looks irresistible, and so the Northern Gateway proposal is now before us. Actually, the proposal is for two pipelines, for a condensate is added to the oil sludge in Alberta so that the oil will actually flow, and the condensate would then be removed at Kitimat and pumped back in a smaller pipeline to Alberta.

There is no quicker way to get Alberta oil to Asia than through a BC tanker port (

This time is different though. No matter the extensive precautions that Enbridge proposes to take, spills and leaks are likely. The crude oil pipeline would pass through 800 km of land of many First Nations, and then supertankers would carry it out Douglas Channel, through the territory of the Haisla First Nation.

The Haisla do reject industrial development – they have at least tolerated and benefited from the aluminum and natural gas initiatives. Perhaps they may yet approve the Enbridge proposal. But they are smart and experienced, and the land and the fjord are theirs to protect.

Super-tankers are huge. The route down the fjord is long. High winds and extreme fogs are not uncommon. Tankers have accidents despite highly trained pilots, reinforced hulls, and escort tugs. And the impact of a spill of any magnitude would be horrendous. Yet despite the obvious risks, Transport Canada has now approved supertanker traffic to Kitimat.

A black bear fishes on the shore of Douglas channel(

An alternative exists: build the pipeline to Prince Rupert instead. Prince Rupert lies on the coast, not at the end of a long fjord. It is already an industrialized port, handling tankers. A natural gas pipeline has been in place since 1968. There are some steeper parts to traverse or tunnel through near the coast, and avalanche risk is greater there. But it avoids the greatest risk, the long tanker trip through Douglas Channel to transport the oil.

Hearings on the Northern Gateway Pipeline have only just begun, and will last a couple of years. If approved, the pipeline could be commissioned in 2017 – though legal challenges could delay it far longer. There is time, and reason, to explore the Prince Rupert option.

Until alternative energy is truly available, we are stuck with making the best of bad deals. We should not stress the Douglas Channel any more than it is at present, for it is irreplaceable.

Huge halibut are still caught in Douglas Channel (

At the same time, we can work to make the whole process of oil and gas recovery less horrible, less destructive of the only natural world we will ever have.