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Tar Sands Fight Goes Beyond Keystone: A Little-Known Pipeline Plan Could Prove Disastrous for British Columbia

An award-winning documentary offers a glimpse of a little-known pipeline plan -- and the paradise it threatens.
 
 
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Environmentalists from DC to California are praising last week's State Department decision to delay approval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline -- a move that could kill the project once and for all. But in Western Canada, where activists have been battling the massive tar sands development at the head of the pipeline for decades, the fight is nowhere near over.

In fact, at an impromptu sideline meetup at the APEC Summit in Hawaii this past weekend, Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty scolded Pres. Barack Obama for delaying the Keystone project, and reminded him that the US is not the only oil-buyer in the world market.

The delay, Flaherty said, "may mean we may have to move quickly to ensure we can sell our oil to Asia through British Columbia." He was referring to a pipeline proposal that is extremely controversial in Canada but virtually unknown here -- the Enbridge oil company's Northern Gateway, which would pump tar sands bitumen 731 miles to the coast of northwestern British Columbia, where it would be put on supertankers destined for China.

A week earlier, on Sunday Nov. 5, while 10,000 people encircled the White House to protest the Keystone XL, judges at the prestigious Banff Mountain Film Festival were on stage giving an award to a powerful documentary about the Northern Gateway and Alberta's oil-sands strip-mines, 520 miles to the northeast.

The film, Spoil, takes place in the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the wildest pieces of land on earth. The Northern Gateway's proposed path takes it through a sensitive section of the Great Bear, and, according to the film, threatens the livelihoods of the people of the Gitga'at First Nation. It also could destroy the habitat of the Kermode bear -- an extremely rare, all-white creature also known as the spirit bear.

Trip Jennings, who directed and edited the film, says the existence of the spirit bear was a secret that the Gitga'at rarely spoke of, even among themselves. "They knew what the trappers had done for centuries," Jennings said in an interview last week. "So it became a taboo passed down from the elders--if they happened to see a spirit bear they kept it to themselves."

The Giga'at were at first reluctant to make the spirit bear the symbol of their quest to protect its (and their) home. But as Giga'at leader and guide Marvin Robinson explains in Spoil, the prospect of supertankers plying their narrow intercoastal waterways moved his community to allow the mysterious, charismatic animal to become "the icon for the whole pipeline issue."

Ian McCallister, who lives on an island in the Great Bear and heads the BC-based environmental group Pacific Wild, has worked with the Gitga'at for more than 20 years--when he first arrived, the place was officially known as the Midcoast Timber Supply Area--and it's largely through his and his wife Karen's efforts that it has won protection from logging and open-net fish-farms.

"This place is being viewed in a much different light than it was 20 years ago," McCallister says. "It was a place to extract [British Columbia's] raw resources; today it's a place to celebrate its natural beauty, its ecology, its First Nations culture. So right when we're at this turning point, making good on this promise to protect the place, we're sideswiped by this proposal to put big oil here. Living in fear of a catastrophic oil spill has become very real."

McCallister felt that the place's unparalleled wildness and beauty -- and the spirit bear -- offered a unique opportunity to attract national and attention to its plight. So he contacted Cristina Mittermeier, director of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Spoil follows an innovative artistic/political intervention developed by that organization -- a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE).

 
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