Photo: How tankers and drills threaten Canadian waters

Ships transporting oil travel regularly through the St. Lawrence Seaway (Credit: .: sandman via Flickr).

Most of the world's creatures live in the ocean. And our three oceans support some of the most abundant and diverse webs of marine life on Earth.

Even though humans live on land, we still depend on the ocean to stay alive. Half of the world's oxygen is produced by tiny plankton living in the ocean.

But our sea life is at risk of contamination from oil and chemical spills — oil tankers ply our waters, and oil rigs operate offshore.

A vast volume of oil travels along the East Coast

The greatest threat to Canada's coastlines is on the East Coast, where daily tanker traffic vies for space with thousands of fishing boats, ferries and tugboats.

The volume of oil shipped through these waters is staggering. In 2006, more than 1,000 vessels moved about 50 billion litres of crude oil and/or refined gas in and out of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland (that's over 322 million barrels).

Another 12- to 14-billion litres (80 million barrels) were carried in ships that travelled through our eastern waters to other ports and destinations on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

At least three oil and gas rigs are also operating off the coast of Newfoundland (Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose), as well as one in Nova Scotia (Sable). Right now, more drilling and exploration are taking place.

Tankers on the North and West coasts are a potential problem

Fortunately, oil and gas plans for the West Coast and northern waters are not as developed — at least not yet.

But today, Enbridge, an Alberta-based petroleum and gas company, is proposing to build a massive oil pipeline from Alberta to the B.C. coast. The Northern Gateway Project involves constructing 1,172 kilometres of twin pipelines, stretching from Edmonton, Alberta, to a new marine terminal in Kitimat, B.C. The pipe would export petroleum from the Alberta tar sands and import condensate (a chemical used to extract oil from tar sands) to Alberta refineries.

Oil tanker traffic will increase if the new pipeline is built as planned — from only a few to as many as 220 tankers a year. B.C.'s numerous inlets are difficult to navigate, and oil tanker accidents pose a real risk. Locals know the dangers of travelling through Hecate Strait and other regions.

Oil and gas exploration, along with tanker traffic, has been under a moratorium in B.C. since 1972. Right now, oil tankers in B.C. are required to travel at least 65 kilometres from shore. However, they occasionally foray further inland to deliver condensate to a railhead in Kitimat for delivery to the Alberta tar sands.

How drilling for oil can hurt marine habitats

Damage to the marine environment is inevitable with oil and gas exploration:

  • Companies conduct seismic surveys before drilling. Bursts of high-pressure air or sound waves are directed at the seabed, creating loud undersea noises that can disrupt the migratory paths and feeding patterns of whales, seals and other marine mammals. These sound waves can also harm fish that have swim bladders, destroy fish eggs and larvae, and temporarily cause fish and other sea creatures to leave the area.
  • Oil drilling and production platforms release pollution into the surrounding waters almost daily. A single production platform can discharge over 90,000 metric tonnes of toxic waste into the ocean in its lifetime. Since 1997, the Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board has recorded 337 oil spills from three rigs operating there, which have dumped an estimated 430,000 litres (or 2,700 barrels) of synthetic drilling fluids and other hydrocarbons into the ocean.)
  • Only about 15 per cent of spilled oil can be recovered, and that's under the best conditions. When the wind blows above 20 to 25 knots, oil spill clean-up is completely ineffective. Based on the average wind speed for a place like the Queen Charlotte Basin on the West Coast, clean-up would be virtually impossible during winter.
  • Even small amounts of oil and other drilling fluids can harm sea life over a large area. After a major oil spill, the shorelines can remain polluted for decades. Even now, more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez lost its toxic cargo in Alaska, raw crude oil is still being found on what now appear to be pristine recovered beaches.
  • B.C.'s coast is unique because the proposed oil and gas extraction is nearshore, not offshore. An oil spill would be devastating, as the wind and current patterns would ensure that contaminants hit the coast and areas of high economic and ecological importance.

Canada's East Coast is already dealing with the negative effects of offshore oil drilling. Lack of transparency and underreporting from industry are already putting this region at risk.

The solution? Protect the coast from tanker and drilling damage

The only way to keep Canada's coasts oil-free is to keep oil tankers out of our waters and prevent further oil and gas exploration off our coasts. Where activity already takes place, we need to ensure that it's as safe as possible, and that the best spill-response technology is employed.

The West Coast is known as the Galapagos of the north, our East Coast provides several important whale and fish migration routes, and we have only begun to explore our Arctic.

Further development of offshore oil and gas in Canada is just not worth the risk.

Tell our leaders to set up marine protected areas and to implement a strong marine planning process.

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