Earthquake shakes faith in pipeline project

The Province
October 30, 2012

(photo courtesy of Ecojustice)

The weekend's frightening offshore earthquake came at the worst possible time for the proposed Enbridge pipeline — or the best, depending on your point of view.

For opponents of the $6-billion megaproject, the quake and resulting tsunami scare highlighted the pipeline's risks.

"I was in a pub with friends when it happened, and someone said, 'Imagine this hitting a pipeline or slamming into loaded oil tankers,'" said Ben West of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

"Everybody just went quiet. This reinforces the concerns people already have."

And that's a good thing for pipeline opponents counting on rising public opposition to stop it. Pipeline critics were railing on Twitter before the first aftershock hit, calling the 7.7-magnitude quake a "warning sign" from nature and even expressing thanks that it happened.

"A lot of people think about human error when thinking about the risks, not natural disasters," said West, who predicted pipeline opposition will increase as a result.

For Enbridge, the event came just two weeks after an official admitted the company can't 100-per-cent guarantee its Northern Gateway pipeline would survive a major quake without an oil spill.

"We can never get the probability of a hazard down to zero," Enbridge geotechnical engineer Drummond Cavers told a public hearing Oct. 12.

On Monday, however, the company stressed its pipeline design has taken the risk of a major earthquake into account.

"Northern Gateway has considered the Queen Charlotte fault line in our analysis," said Enbridge spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht.

"The earthquake on Saturday is well within the seismicity of the area and not in any way beyond the scope of our geotechnical and risk analysis to date.

"The size of this earthquake, in fact, is well below the seismic ground accelerations already incorporated into our design."

I'm not sure that kind of technical lingo will ease the fears of people imagining a quake shredding a loaded pipeline or swamping an oil tanker onto the rocks.

The B.C. government, meanwhile, said it would put more heat on the company.

"We've been asking those really tough questions about response capability, about liability insurance," said Environment Minister Terry Lake. "You have to plan for the worst."

Watch for pipeline critics to tighten the screws even tighter against the project, using the earthquake to whip up opposition to even higher levels.

Enbridge was facing a tough sell in B.C. even before Saturday night. Now the province's close-call quake will make its pipeline sales job even tougher.

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All Photography © Ian McAllister unless otherwise noted.
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