Oil & Water
Waves, Untamed Wilderness, And Big Oil Intersect In Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest
Being on the voyage took its own form of activism, of peaceful protest. After all, during the same ten days, dozens of activists were being arrested in the streets of Washington, D.C., in defense of aquifers and a liveable future. We felt a kinship. The long, serpentine arms of Canada’s sinister Tar Sands threatened to touch us both.
In the neighboring province of Alberta, the largest industrial development in the world hums night and day on a frantic and relentless assignment to steam gooey tar out of sand. At the great expense of boreal forest, health of nearby residents, and finite fossil fuels, the most powerful companies in the world coax yet more fossil fuels from this so-called “unconventional” resource. Sibling projects still in their conception phases—in the form of a super-sized Keystone pipeline through the Midwestern United States, and the menacing Northern Gateway pipeline to this precious B.C. coast—both would originate from the belly of this beast.
Given this context, I’d excuse you for thinking that this was a boat full of anti-capitalist, whale-huggers. But you’d be mistaken. The crew spoke—and debated—about our use and abuse of the wealth the planet has bestowed upon us, all acutely aware of our relationship with fossil fuels, and the sticky geopolitical realities that come with it.
Our morning with killer whales was only one experience that defied rational explanation. I honor science as a career, but after this trip, I believe in magic. The animals of the coast had surely conspired to have us take notice of them. Pacific White-sided Dolphins seemed especially attracted to our bow wake this voyage, and massive humpback whales parted the water at the precise tide lines Captain Brian had predicted.
Luckily for us, Chris Malloy was not only documenting our voyage, but also donating his trademark vision, energy, and, of course, power surfing to the project. Almost without fail he was duty-bound behind the camera when the rights were on. But when we chanced on a couple of powerful lefts, he abandoned his post and left videographer Scott Soens (and his bear spray) to fend for himself.
Trevor, the youngest aboard, approached each wave with the same sensitivity he applied to his sketchbook. Elegant lines tied together a suite of maneuvers. He somehow negotiated a 5’8” into giant, leaned-back bottom turns. He nabbed little barrels at the beachbreaks. He threw spray with intention, and all with a distinctive coupling of modesty and flair.
On land, we not only followed in the footsteps of wild wolves, but they also followed in ours. And during a hike up a particularly magnificent watershed, we could not walk for five minutes without sharing a trail with fishing grizzlies. Not bad for a bunch of Californian surfers who had never seen the animal that graces their state flag in the flesh. Sadly, not many will, since the bruin and most of the salmon that once supported them have been lost forever to the modern world.
The Plan, The Man
Some men dream of wealth, but an artificial wealth, one borne at the expense of natural capital. The oil giant, Enbridge Inc., and its international partners have hatched a plan for the most ambitious project of its kind ever conceived. A shiny new pipeline would snake its way westward across nearly 650 miles of Albertan and B.C. wilderness, hundreds of fish-bearing streams, and dozens of First Nations territories. At a port assaulted by some of the planet’s most violent storms, the world’s dirtiest oil would be sucked into the largest ocean-going vessels ever built. Two to three very Large Crude Containers (or VLCCs in industry lexicon), temples to industrial hubris, would navigate complex inlets and dodge reefs en route to oil-hungry Asia and California each week. That’s about 225,000,000 gallons of “diluted bitumen” plowing through our seas every seven days.
This plan would taunt one of the most rugged landscapes and perilous coastlines in the world. The pipeline would have to traverse some of the most extreme geology on Earth: two mountain ranges (the Rockies and the Coast Range), a hotspot of seismic activity, and powerful waterways that drain a good portion of the continent. Vicious hurricane-force winds pummel anything or anyone reckless enough to be caught outside. Even tucked away in bombproof anchorages, our 70-foot Acheiver danced all night during a couple of storms. We spun around our anchor chain, with halyards slapping the mast and robbing us of sleep.
We hear promises of world-class safety protocols. Will pipeline maintenance match the Enbridge standards that polluted Michigan’s Kalamazoo River? Will these protocols ensure the safety of our salmon and their spawning rivers, which provide the foundation for life on B.C.’s coast? Can Enbridge’s marine cleanup responses match British Petroleum’s, which failed the Gulf Coast? These wild winter seas would make a mockery of emergency oil spill deployment. Plus, if we have learned anything from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Brian and I reminded the crew, it should be that even the best available technology can be reduced to irrelevance by human error, malfunction, bad luck, weather, and their wicked interaction.
Sure, it’s easy to be critical without acknowledging that we are addicted to Very Big Oil’s product. But does that mean we should ignore their grand schemes designed to deliver the world its fix? If we don’t, need we abandon all petroleum-based activities to avoid hypocrisy?
As a team, we came to the conclusion that neither is the answer. Our conversations eventually found their way to super tankers, unacceptable risks, and the irreversibility of marine catastrophe. We also acknowledged how irreplaceable it all was, too, for this was among the very last unspoiled coastlines in the world—and indeed, one without any existing tanker traffic.