Recent developments in Canada’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion saga remind us yet again of the inevitability of energy infrastructure debates in the West. By ruling that British Columbia’s government does not have the authority to restrict shipments of oil sands crude from neighboring Alberta, B.C.’s top appeals court has further advanced the petroleum pipeline ambitions of politicians in Alberta and Ottawa, including Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And just last Thursday, Alberta’s government launched a $1 million advertising campaign in downtown Vancouver to sway public opinion and pressure B.C.’s government to get on board with the pipeline program.
Just a short drive from the pipeline’s terminus in Burnaby, B.C., some residents of Whatcom County are keeping a close eye on the proposal’s momentum north of the border. That’s not only because of where the project fits into larger narratives about global climate change and the ecological feasibility of oil-sands extraction, but also growing concerns about increased oil-tanker traffic — and associated environmental risks — in the Salish Sea that such a pipeline would bring. Petroleum spills represent a worst-case scenario in this fragile cross-border ecosystem. Further inland, pipeline leaks large and small represent a significant threat to land, wildlife, and watersheds if and when they are not caught on time.
Such lessons have been well documented in Bellingham, where 20 years ago the Olympic Pipeline explosion wounded a community’s faith in energy infrastructure. On June 10, 1999, the 16-inch gasoline pipeline owned by Olympic Pipeline Company — spanning about 275 miles between Ferndale and Portland, and part of a larger regional pipeline network — was seriously ruptured. The accident released more than 230,000 gallons of fuel into Whatcom Creek, a key urban waterway that connects Lake Whatcom to Bellingham Bay and provides urban green space, wildlife habitat and salmon spawning grounds.
The environmental damage was unprecedented. When the hundreds of thousands of gallons of spilled gasoline ultimately ignited, a fireball roared down the creek, utterly devastating most of the wildlife habitat in its path. The explosion also caused millions of dollars of damage to civic and private property.
The saddest legacy was the human toll. Three young people were killed — two 10-year old boys, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, and 18-year old Liam Wood. Their passing left the community reeling.
While two decades feels like an eternity in the modern world, it represents a mere blip in the natural order of things. The ecological scars of June 10, 1999, are still evident along the creek’s winding path from lake to sea — even as local officials have done commendable work to repair and improve the conditions of the creek system and adjoining restoration lands.
Meanwhile, improved oversight, maintenance and governance of pipeline assets — thanks to public pressure and civic leadership at local, state and national levels — have gone a long way in building trust with community members. But the tragic toll of human life is never forgotten.
The Canadian political economist and geographer Harold Innis, drawing from the lessons of North American frontier economies of the past two centuries and the lumber trade in particular, argued that most societies were an outgrowth of their natural resource industries. His theory holds true across the Pacific Northwest, where mining, lumber, energy and other natural resources play not only substantial economic roles in communities large and small, but also leave political, cultural and environmental impacts.
That’s why the public’s trust must be paramount in virtually any resources-infrastructure project — pipelines included. One positive legacy of the 1999 tragedy was the establishment of the Pipeline Safety Trust, which came into being thanks to a grassroots watchdog group called SAFE Bellingham and the families of the deceased, who demanded improved oversight and accident prevention planning. Inspired by a similar organization set up in the wake of Alaska’s 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Bellingham-based organization has a mandate to advocate for safer pipelines not only in the Northwest but, indeed, nationally.
This is emblematic of the corporate social responsibility concept known as social license to operate. Developed by scholars grappling with the oft-volatile relationships between mining companies and the communities in which they operate, such social license emphasizes the role of community members and other local stakeholders in incorporating a company’s enterprise into their collective identity, or conversely, refusing to accept it based on a misalignment with local values. Bellingham’s community response in the aftermath of this tragedy is but one example, but it highlights the critical role of engaged citizenship and civic governance to the ability of resources companies to operate in democratic jurisdictions. Companies must earn the trust of local constituencies before they turn a profit.
The anniversary of the Olympic Pipeline Explosion not only serves as reminder that our economy continues to be tied to energy infrastructure, especially as oil and gas pipeline debates flare up across the U.S. and Canada. It’s a reminder that the movement of petroleum products — whether by pipeline or rail — presents a particular set of complex risk-management issues for communities. In Bellingham, the explosion left a legacy of human tragedy and natural disaster. But it also provides an example of how civic and ecological engagement can provide a sustainable and hopeful path going forward.