Q&A: Meet the Former Federal Environment Minister Who First Instigated the B.C. Tanker Ban

Now 79, David Anderson has been fighting to prevent oil tankers on the coast of British Columbia since he was first elected 48 years ago. In the early 1970s, he was the architect of an inside passage tanker moratorium and a number of other restrictions on B.C. offshore drilling and tanker exports imposed by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau — which may or may not still exist. Anderson would go on to serve as federal Minister of Environment under Jean Chretien, after a stint in provincial politics, including as leader of the provincial Liberal party. Anderson left politics in 2006, but has remained a steadfast advocate for the coast he loves.

The following interview was conducted on November 15, 2016, weeks before the federal Liberals announced a north coast crude tanker ban and approved the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline. It has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Christopher Pollon: There has been a lot of confusion about the restrictions on oil and gas drilling and tankers that were created back in the early 1970s, and the current status of those. What is the history of this?

David Anderson: [Those restrictions] were put in place in 1971. I guess you could say I was the instigator. tweet

I went to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and he agreed in 1970, when the Alaska pipeline battle was going full bore, that we should put a moratorium on offshore drilling. At this time [British Columbia] had 28 wells drilled at sea off the west coast of Vancouver Island and in Hecate Strait. The safety record for drilling and tankers was abysmal then — it has improved, so it has gone from dismal to bad. tweet

Trudeau was concerned about that and the Alaska traffic [from tankers carrying Alaska oil to the lower 48]. The most likely route was the inside passage down to somewhere in Puget Sound. And that clearly was a major risk, to have tankers plying the inside passage, so Canada was determined to get them on the outside coast in the open ocean, where in fact if there were an incident, it wouldn't be like the Exxon Valdez or the Queen of the North. It would at least be a ship in trouble, with the opportunity perhaps of getting a tug out there to help it out. Also, if you have an open ocean spill, you are less likely to foul the coast. tweet

The idea was that we were trying to prevent tanker traffic in the inside passage, and Trudeau was persuaded. He was quite an environmentalist — and I mean Pierre Elliott Trudeau — and he was persuaded. He put a moratorium on the drilling because drilling licenses require you to do so much work in a certain time period to hold the license. He said no, we'll waive that and put a moratorium on any work. So, [oil companies like Chevron] didn't lose their licenses, they are still valid out on the west coast. But 1971 was the year that they ceased to be operational. tweet

CP: What about on the south coast?

DA: At that point we already had tanker traffic going out of Vancouver from Trans Mountain…I think most of it went to California, which is sort of ironic because we used to get entirely supplied by California a few decades before Alberta oil started to flow. tweet

So what Prime Minister Trudeau did at that time, he said, 'we'll cap the exports at their present level.' The issue, of course, was if you take away somebody's business, they're entitled to compensation. tweet

And also there was the issue of inconsistency with respect to refined products. We had refined products going to a lot of coastal communities, to Vancouver Island, obviously by sea. But the basic concern was that we would be in protracted negotiations and/or litigation with Trans Mountain, if we took away their export market. So what we did, we froze the level, and said, you can carry on doing what you're doing now, but we're not letting you expand. tweet

CP: Were these restrictions made into law?

DA: It was informal. It was never formalized by an order in council. Neither of these things were formalized by order in council. And what Justin Trudeau is now planning on doing is at least formalizing the northern ban on tanker traffic, crude oil movements in northern British Columbia waters. tweet

CP: So for the south coast, there was a restriction created for how much Trans Mountain can move?

DA: Absolutely. tweet

CP: So, does any of this apply now? Or did these non-formalized directives die when that Prime Minister left office?

DA: Well, I can't answer that definitively; it would take a constitutional lawyer. But I guess you'd have to say that anybody can put in a proposal to be analyzed for moving oil. The National Energy Board has its methods of evaluating, and the government has its methods of evaluating proposals. tweet

But there was in place the knowledge that it was government policy to prevent exports exceeding the level that they were at in 1971. So if you could persuade the government that its policy was wrong, then you could perhaps get a permit to increase the level. tweet

CP: So has Kinder Morgan specifically addressed or challenged this export cap on the south coast?

DA: No, what they've said is, it doesn't exist because it was not formalized in an order in council or law. tweet

CP: I wanted to ask you what the federal government’s perception of this moratorium has been, and the provincial government, for that matter, as well. My understanding is that the original moratorium restricted oil and gas exploration and development on the inside coastal seabed, and it barred Alaska-bound oil tankers from the Dickson Entrance, Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound. 

DA: Well, there's another wrinkle to this thing. The Americans have the right to use the inside passage to connect two states: Washington and Alaska. We do not have full jurisdiction when you have a sea route between two states, even though it passes through Canadian internal waters. tweet

We had to persuade the Americans to go offshore, and that's why we got Trudeau so interested. He didn't want to have the inside passage used for this major expansion in Alaska oil traffic. Two million barrels a day, that's a lot of oil moved south.  tweet

CP: So the two million a day was from what source?

DA: Alaska, from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, and then onward from Valdez by tanker.  tweet

It's now down to about a fifth of that I think. It's way down. Production has dropped off in Alaska, as the field was exhausted.

CP: What was the dynamic at the time with the Americans, were they resistant to moving the tankers to the outside waters? 

DA: We had to persuade the Americans, because technically, as far as I could see, they had the right to take a route between the two American states which we had agreed to in the various border agreements that took place about the turn of the century. tweet

They also had the right that comes with having the world's largest navy, the right of superior power. So we had to persuade them. Now, to persuade them to get offshore, we had to be consistent. And you couldn't be consistent if you were allowing drilling [in B.C. waters]. And you couldn't be consistent if you were allowing Canadian exports. tweet

CP: What is the best course for the current Prime Minister if he is sincere about wanting to protect the coast?

DA: The first thing is to do a proper analysis of coastal risks. We have never had anything, except for the Thompson inquiry in the 80s, where you looked at the whole coast and said, which areas are the lowest risk? tweet

We've always just responded to company proposals such as the Enbridge [Northern Gateway] one, or the Kinder Morgan one. tweet

We've never done a systematic evaluation of the safest place to put a port. And actually, in my view, the safest place is probably on the north coast, a place like Port Edwards. But, I'm sure you haven't heard very much about Port Edwards. It's got the least obstruction from port to open ocean, the shortest distance from port to open ocean, and so it may be the safest. I use that just as an example. tweet

Or take Kinder Morgan. If their proposal moved to Roberts Bank, the risk of a shipping accident declines dramatically. Why? Because their current proposal means taking a tanker a day out through Second Narrows, under the bridges and out with all the traffic coming into Vancouver harbour. tweet

Tugboat people say 'no problem, we'll just handle it with tugs,' but a tug can't stop a loaded tanker. The inertia of such a vessel is so extraordinarily high, the energy represented by its weight times the speed, it's not possible for tugs to turn it on a dime. tweet

So even shifting the terminal of the pipe from Burnaby to Tsawwassen will reduce your tanker risk of an accident at the terminal dramatically. Nobody has done this comparative analysis of these various sites. Nobody has said well, 'to really be safer we might want to go down to Cherry Point,' which is [nearby in] Washington state, where we may get greater safety of shipping, because that's the terminal that's been used for Alaskan oil for the last 30 or 40 years. tweet

Or maybe we should build a terminal out at Port Angeles, out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, as far out to the ocean as we can, on the grounds that the closer to the ocean, the fewer obstacles in the way. tweet

So if I have one piece of advice to Trudeau, this being Justin Trudeau, for God's sake, start doing some systematic risk analysis of where we can have the safest system! tweet

The second advice to him is to basically acknowledge, 'my father knew something that I think I should pay attention to. He was a smart man. He put in a ban on the north coast, and he put in a moratorium, or at least, a grandfathering [export] cap on the south coast. I should look very carefully before I change my father's policies.' tweet

It's his dad that did it, and his dad did it for good reasons. tweet

CP: What do you make of the whole Trump factor, and the prospects of the Keystone XL pipeline being back on the table?

DA: That has turned everything on its head. You don't need Kinder Morgan now to expand the tar sands in Alberta. tweet

By the way, Kinder Morgan, Keystone XL, Energy East and Enbridge, all four of them were designed to expand what they're doing on the tar sands today. It's not to maintain market, to keep things going at the current level. It's to expand it. tweet

That's a very questionable proposition. We know this source of oil is heavy in emissions, and we know that in future we're going to have to cut down on emissions, so if we're going to take the Prime Minister seriously on emission reduction, you're going to have to find even larger cutbacks elsewhere. tweet

So, this expansion concept has to be analyzed. Most people think that, well, we're doing this to give a market for Albertan oil, because they think somehow or another we've lost markets. We haven't lost existing markets. And when the industry is pressed on this they say, oh we don't get a good price in the states, they're bad customers. Well, we get the price the industry negotiated. If they're incompetent in handling the business, you know, please will they bite the bullet and resign! tweet

CP: How does it feel to see many of these issues unresolved today, given that they had been addressed so long ago?

DA: I've been fighting oil on the coast since I was first elected 48 years ago. And it's the same irritating business: you're not getting coherent, logical decision making, we're responding to companies without picking the best place, and we're making decisions on the fly based on politics in Alberta rather than on economic and environmental considerations. tweet

Trudeau has admitted…the NEB evaluation system is flawed, and yet he's not repaired it. tweet

He's said that we have climate change as the biggest issue we're facing, and yet he doesn't have climate change worked into this major increase in emissions that the Kinder Morgan proposal represents. tweet

There's a whole pile of illogical aspects that irritate me enormously.  tweet

Image: Tankers and cargo ships near Vancouver B.C. Photo: Ari Fester via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver-based independent journalist who reports on the politics of natural resources, focusing on energy, mines and…

Almost everything we know about e-waste is wrong

Many of us think we know what electronic waste is because we wonder what to do with devices we no longer want or need. It’s...

Continue Reading

Recent Posts