The View from above

🕔Oct 04, 2011

Steven Garman negotiates his Cessna 185 through the narrow canyon just east of Terrace, pointing out GPS points as he goes. “Another spot coming up in nine seconds,” he says.

The views from the tiny aircraft are incredible. Canyon walls plummet to Hoult Creek as late-evening sun filters through the clouds, creating a rainbow that spans the canyon. Behind us, the creek flows into the Kitimat River and into the Pacific via Douglas Channel.

Just one thing that’s slightly unnerving: we’re flying straight toward a rock wall.

“Oh yeah,” Garman mutters sarcastically over the headset. “You gotta be able to get a pipeline through there.”

Folded into the back of the tiny Cessna, I’m peering over the shoulders of Garman and Nikki Skuce, a senior energy campaigner with ForestEthics. Using GPS points taken from Enbridge’s website, we are flying the western section of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline route.

Opting out of the stomach-churning aerials performed by Garman as he flew conservation photographer Neil Ever Osborne over the route from the Alberta-BC border earlier this week, Skuce and I are surveying the pipeline’s most volatile terrain, just east of Terrace. We’re having a hard time believing our eyes.

Intended to open overseas markets for Canada’s oil, the estimated $5.5 billion, 1,172-kilometre twin pipeline would carry an average 525,000 barrels of petroleum from the tar-sands to the coast every day and bring condensate, used to thin the petroleum, from Kitimat to Alberta. The potential for an oil spill in northern BC has sparked public outcry from communities along the pipeline route, as well as coastal communities concerned with tanker traffic. It is currently under review by the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

Worries over the pipeline’s potential impacts start in the Alberta tar-sands, where increased cancer rates in the local Mikisew First Nation downstream of the oil-sands are creating concern. The pipeline would allow for a 30 percent increase in production, according to the Pembina Institute.

From Alberta, it would travel west across the BC border, skirting Monkman Provincial Park and crossing traditional territories of more than 50 First Nations groups—the majority of which have voiced opposition to the project.

Tunnel vision
As it nears the coast, the pipeline route tackles its most challenging terrain. Where we’re flying, somewhere between Smithers and Terrace as the crow flies, is where pipeline developer Enbridge plans to tunnel through a mountain. The Hoult and Clore tunnels would each be roughly 6.5 kilometres long.

According to Enbridge Northern Gateway spokesman Paul Stanway, the technology isn’t new, although he admits the objective is a “considerable engineering feat.” It involves tunnel-boring machines, drilling and blasting, and would take three years to complete.

“The companies that we would use have done it before. It’s not something that Enbridge has done before, but obviously we would hire people that would have a lot of experience in building tunnels in that sort of terrain.” Research on the Hoult and Clore tunnel regions, Stanway says, included geological mapping, geophysical surveys, assessment of slope hazards and potential route options.

“The conclusion from the initial studies was that the risks associated with construction and operation of the two proposed pipelines in this location with a conventional pipeline route would not be acceptable,” he says. “As a result, further engineering studies focused on evaluation of feasible tunnel route options.”

Smithers-based researcher Jim Schwab isn’t so sure. The geomorphologist hopes his report examining slope stability along the proposed pipeline route, which was recently released through the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, will encourage discussion and more in-depth study into alternative pipeline routes. The terrain is complex, he says, and destructive landslides are common: a pipeline break would be inevitable.

“The unstable mountainous terrain across west-central BC is not a safe location for pipelines. Eventually a landslide will sever a pipeline,” Schwab says. “An alternative, safer route through BC needs investigation.”

Schwab’s report examines three distinct regions—defined by present-day landforms, erosion and landslides—that the proposed pipeline would cross: the Nechako Plateau, the Hazelton Mountains, and the Kitimat Ranges. The first two regions, although relatively benign, do have a history of landslides. Since its construction in the 1970s, large landslides have severed a natural gas pipeline in the Bulkley Range three times.

But most unstable is the Coast Mountains near the route’s terminus at Kitimat. Steep, narrow valleys characterize the Kitimat Ranges, which experienced debris flows—powerful landslides that can damage or rupture pipelines—during extreme rainstorms in 1978 and 1992. Six large rockslides have occurred in west-central BC since 1978, with four taking place in the last decade, including those that severed the natural gas pipeline. The longest slide travelled more than four kilometres along a shallow nine-degree slope.

“The potential for damage to pipelines extends to landslides that start well outside the construction corridor,” Schwab adds.

Picture perfect
From the Hoult Tunnel, the pipeline would flow southwest to the Kitimat River, ending at a tanker terminal. Below us, Skuce notes the narrow valleys and countless drainages that funnel toward Douglas Channel.

“Seeing it from the air, seeing where they’re planning on tunneling through, makes it seem all the more insane,” she says. “It raises a lot more questions. Questions about Enbridge; about if there is a spill, how they would address it; how they would reach the area where it’s spilling.”

The purpose of the trip, Skuce says, was to document the pristine ecosystems threatened by oil spills with aerial photographs. Osborne is with the International League of Conservation Photographers, a Washington-based organization that’s taken a keen interest in northern BC in recent years. Garman is a volunteer pilot with LightHawk, an organization that donates flights to promote conservation efforts. Working together, the pair collected photos of the fragile landscape along the proposed pipeline route that appear in National Geographic Daily News, Treehugger, Huffington Post and Outside Magazine’s website.

“There are lots of images of the tar-sands and the coast—especially the coast because it’s beautiful—but a big objective was to get more imagery of the pipeline route,” Skuce says.

“It definitely reinforced my resolve to fight this because there’s no way it can be engineered safely. Just seeing it from a bird’s-eye view—just how fortunate we are in British Columbia. These areas are internationally significant in the diversity of the ecosystems and the vibrant cultures that live here.”

The trip also offered an opportunity for First Nations to see their territories from the air, with representatives from the Wet’suwet’en, Saik’uz and Gitga’at First Nations joining flights. Office of the Wet’suwet’en natural resources manager David de Wit calls the experience “amazing,” revealing the natural diversity and ecological values from the air.

“Our territory supports the way of life, identity, and the governance system of the Wet’suwet’en, which is difficult for some to understand when it is presented in the western terms of Aboriginal Rights and Title,” he says. “Proposed pipeline projects will compromise a way of life and unforeseen impacts would be inevitable. This is why the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership do not support or condone proposed pipeline projects.”

Back to earth
For a heart-stopping moment, Garman banks the plane. The rock face feels close enough to touch as the world spins around us. Passing steep, narrow drainages as we leave the canyon, we follow the path of the proposed pipeline, emerging in the Kitimat Trough and heading south to circle over Kitimat and the site of the proposed tanker terminal before returning to Terrace airport.
Although it’s a relief to feel the Cessna’s wheels hit the runway, the sinking feeling in my gut is the result of more than just the recent descent.

This is the first in a two-part series about the potential effects of transporting oil through the North. In the next issue of Northword, Amanda Follett looks at the fragile marine ecosystems that lie beyond the proposed Enbridge pipeline route.