Volume 46, Issue 4: July/August 2012

Pipeline to Perdition

The photo ops of the Canadian prime minister petting panda bears and cuddling kittens have all been calculated to humanize Stephen Harper and project an image of someone who gives a damn about the environment and the well-being of other species. But no amount of spin can conceal his escalating war on nature and wildlife in the interest of the oil and gas industry.

Harper’s most far-reaching assault on the natural world to date comes in the form of the omnibus budget bill rammed through parliament in early June. Mendaciously named the “Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act,” Bill C-38 introduced, amended or scrapped some 70 federal laws, with the principal aim in many cases of crippling environmental protection and sweeping away obstacles to pipelines. It gives cabinet the authority to approve new pipeline projects and allows the National Energy Board to permit the destruction of endangered species or their habitat wherever a pipeline is involved.

The wholesale revision of the Fisheries Act under C-38, essentially aimed at removing protection for fish habitat, has widely been seen as a bid to facilitate the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, now favoured by Harper to ship oil from the Tar Sands to Kitimat, BC, and then by tanker to China. The pipeline will cross 1,000 rivers and streams, and its promoters in industry and government regard strictures on habitat destruction as costly and inexpedient. More than 600 respected scientists from across Canada appealed to Harper to reconsider this ominous piece of legislation, as did four former federal fisheries ministers — two of them Conservatives. Responding to changes to the Act by virtue of which measures to protect fish habitat would henceforth apply only to “fish of economic, cultural and ecological value,” the scientists protested: “This makes no sense. All species are of ecological value, a fact recognized by the current act. For example, some of our most economically and culturally valued fish species feed upon minnows and so-called ‘rough fish’ species, which allow them to survive and grow.”

Of course, such pleas are futile, since science has no purchase with the Harper government, as evidenced by the slashing of the federal budget for environmental science, from the axing of the Experimental Lakes Area specializing in freshwater research to the closing of the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory devoted to tracking ozone depletion, air quality and climate change. The Harper regime is now hobbling our capacity as a nation even to assess the extent of ecological degradation. 

It is just such contempt for science that led John Fraser, a fisheries minister under Brian Mulroney, to declare: “To take habitat out of the Fisheries Act is a very serious error because you can’t save fish if you don’t save habitat,” adding that those seeking to dispense with the necessary safeguards aren’t conservatives but“…ideological right-wingers with very, very limited understanding, intelligence or wisdom.”

With C-38, the Harper regime, in its infinitesimal wisdom, is continuing to lay the groundwork for the devastation of the Great Bear Rainforest on the north and central coast of BC, one of the world’s few remaining large tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest, which is home to wildlife species found nowhere else on earth. This ecological jewel harbours cougars, wolves, salmon, grizzly bears, and the famed spirit bear, a genetically unique light-colour variant of the black bear. A January 2012 report commissioned by the Coastal First Nations on the impact of an oil spill confirmed the devastating effects of a (statistically inevitable) spill on the coastal communities and wildlife.

But in upside-down Harperland, challenges to almighty pipelines are tantamount to treason. Petroleum and profit trump life and liberty. The slogan of the recent multimillion dollar Enbridge ad campaign, “It’s more than a pipeline,” couldn’t be truer: it’s more than a pipeline all right; it’s a one-way path to ecological calamity, and Stephen Harper is clearing the way.