Oil and Water

Filmmakers put it all on the line to support B.C.'s Great Bear Rainforest

By Conor Mihell

Like the wicked sou’easters that pummel the Inside Passage all winter long, a storm is brewing on the northern coast of British Columbia that could threaten a paddler’s paradise and a pristine node of biological diversity. Canadian environmental assessment hearings began in January for Enbridge’s proposed 700-mile pipeline route from northern Alberta to the small coastal B.C. town of Kitimat, which would pump 525,000 barrels of sludge-like bitumen across the Rocky and Coast Range mountains and into the fragile Great Bear Rainforest. From there, about 220 Empire State Building-sized supertankers would navigate the convoluted waters of the Douglas Channel each year before striking off across the Pacific to Asia.

Read more on paddling B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest from our March 2010 feature HERE

Paddlers Norm Hann and Frank Wolf know the area first-hand. In two separate yet equally ambitious projects in the spring and summer of 2010, Hann and Wolf ground-truthed the pipeline and tanker route using muscle power alone. Hann, a resident of Squamish, B.C., cranked out 40-mile days and weathered occasional bouts of eight-foot seas on a 250-mile journey by standup paddleboard from Kitimat to the native community of Hartley Bay and along the island-pocked coast south to the remote town of Bella Bella. He met with coastal First Nations to learn first-hand how supertankers each carrying eight times the volume of the Exxon Valdez would affect their traditional way of life, visited whale researchers, and landed at age-old pictograph, petroglyph and burial sites.

“Spill or no spill, these places will change,” says Brian Huntington, a photographer who joined Hann in producing the documentary, Standup 4 Great Bear. “Many of them won’t survive just because of the presence of supertankers.”

North Vancouver filmmaker Wolf and his friend, Todd McGowan, began their 53-day epic far from the coast in Edmonton, Alberta. The pair biked 250 miles into the heart of the Tar Sands and then followed the exact GPS course of the pipeline by foot, mountain bike and packraft to the coast at Kitimat. Wolf and McGowan crossed 773 waterways including the headwaters of the massive Skeena and Fraser rivers and ventured into some of the wildest terrain in North America, just as another Enbridge pipeline spilled 19,500 barrels of Canadian bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, precipitating a $700 million cleanup project that continues today. Upon reaching the coast they sea kayaked the Douglas Channel, camping in the mossy forest and on rocky points.

The Great Bear Rainforest is home to the famous Kermode or “spirit” bear, a white-coated subspecies of the common black bear that’s only found in this portion of the B.C. coast. “It’s a beautiful place to paddle,” says Wolf. “There’s old growth, lots of whales, seals, easy fishing, spirit bears and wild wolves on the coast.”

Officials in the Canadian government would do well to watch Wolf’s On the Line documentary, which is set to air on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Documentary channel in March. Since President Obama shelved the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas, Ottawa has been a vocal supporter of finding new markets for Canadian oil in Asia. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has blackballed “wealthy socialists” like Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom have spoken out against the Northern Gateway under the banner of Washington, D.C.’s Natural Resources Defense Council, in the media. Similarly, natural resources minister Joe Oliver stated in an open letter to Canadians that “environmental and other radical groups” are hijacking the permitting process and threatening Canada’s economy. Other supporters of Enbridge’s $5.5 billion plan include global energy giants including France’s Total SA and China’s Sinopec.

Besides adding another nail in the coffin of efforts to abate global climate change and expedite the transition to cleaner sources energy, Hann and Wolf got to see what’s immediately in the line of fire: Wild mountains, rivers and coastline, a rich array of wildlife and proud communities clinging to traditional, sustainable economies. Along the proposed pipeline and tanker route they met with members of the 130 first nations that oppose it. While the Canadian government is hawking its oil to the world, it’s clear that thousands of concerned citizens are digging in their heels for an epic environmental battle.

“Everything here is at stake,” says Ian MacAllister, the director of Pacific Wild, a non-profit conservation group on B.C.’s central coast. “First nations culture, whales, salmon, spirit bears and so much more.”

Watch the documentaries:

Norm Hann’s Standup4GreatBear:


Frank Wolf’s On The Line:

Related Posts:

Add a Comment

  • Mike Aldridge

    The Skeena drainage is home to some of worlds most prolific and last untouched salmon and steelhead runs. It’s sad to see this project threaten one of the world’s last untouched wilderness.

  • http://fracdallas.org/ Marc W. McCOrd

    Like the Keystone XL pipeline project from Alberta to Texas, the Northern Gateway would bring millions of dollars to a few wealthy oil company people, billions of dollars in profits to the companies involved and a lot of environmental damage along with potentially devastating health and safety problems for those living along the pipeline’s proposed route.

    The Enbridge pipeline rupture that contaminated the Kalamazoo River is a demonstration of what can and will happen with a pipeline system that transports the dirtiest, most corrosive form of oil across major waterways and environmentally sensitive lands. That pipeline failed because it literally corroded from the inside out due to the corrosive nature of what it was carrying. It killed at least 900,000 fish and did extensive environmental damage for over 90 miles. It may yet damage Lake Michigan.

    Oil companies do not care about the environment. Their only concerns are corporate profits and shareholder equity. Oil company people do not live where they work, so the damage they leave behind is not their problem, or so they believe. We only have one environment – when we destroy it, then we destroy ourselves.

  • http://www.myspace.com/timlandon001 Tim Landon

    Even if we forget for a few moments the near certainty of massive ecological damage from leaking pipelines and supertanker spills in this vital region, it makes more sense even from a purely economic standpoint to maintain a comparatively modest oil production rate rather than ramping it up to produce more, faster, now. The price of oil is only going to increase. We’ll get more money for it in the long run and will be in a much better position re: oil security without risking our natural capital. The only possible argument for breakneck development is immediate profit now. Sadly, this argument completely overlooks the entire big picture. Could our government be any more short-sighted? It’s past time we had a government with an actual energy policy in place and our best interests at heart.

  • Carl Clark

    Please consider that this isn’t just about a few rich people. It is about thousands of blue and white collar peoples potential jobs. I am one of them. This can help us feed our families. It is about us being less dependent on people who hate us providing our energy. Remember that both the US and Canada have millions of miles of pipelines operating safely every day. Pipelines maintained and operated by tens of thousands of real people who love our natural environment. I have seen how low the impact of these pipe lines are personally. Those of us in the industry have personally watched how wildlife, nature, and people flourish around these pipelines. Nothing is risk free, but even when the rare accident occurs, we can and do clean it up. a short time later the environment flourishes again after it is cleaned up. We can have high environmental standards, thousands of good paying jobs, and less dependence on middle eastern oil when we do it right.

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  • Art Plewka

    You kid yourself if you think these companies are concerned about safety. At this moment they are lobbying against regulation. The Enbridge pipe in Kalamazoo broke due to old age and poor maintenance—an industry standard. They declared the cleanup finished, now we discover that tar-sands oil is very resistant to standard procedures and we’ve still got a mess. British Petroleum spends millions to protect its brand and clean up the Gulf of Mexico so that it can control the ‘scientific’ reports/PR that are broadcast. We heard the same jobs argument in Michigan before Hooker/Occidental Petroleum created the second worst environmental clean up site in the US. Now they’re long gone and we live with it. If we threw out all the politicians in the pocket of the extractive industries we could have a major shift to new technology and a long future of job creation. Our grandkids would thank us.

  • Darren

    I love nature and our natural environment as much as the next guy. As an avid canoeist, skier, hiker and general outdoorsman I do not want my environment contaminated. However Stop burning gas, using electricity from anything but solar (as wind turbines, tidal, hydro etc can also have a detrimentasl effect on nature), cook on open fire, no large scale manufacturing and live off the land as they would have in 1800, only then may your opinions on the ramifications of industrial activity be taken seriously. No one who utilizes any kind of fossil fuel should even spout their negative views, they are then only hippocites.

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