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Crossing the Border to Protest a Canadian Pipeline

People in the U.S. technically have no say in the matter of Canada's Trans Mountain pipeline. But that hasn’t kept them from fretting about increased tanker traffic in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

June 4, 2017

On the ferry ride from Washington to British Columbia ten activists sang songs they’d written about water that surrounded them: the Salish Sea.

They were crossing the international border for a combination march and ferry ride that would take them from Victoria to Vancouver. Their goal was to protest the expansion of a Canadian oil pipeline.

Julienne Battalia, one of the pipeline protesters who traveled from Washington to British Columbia to join a march opposing expanding oil transport through the Salish Sea. She and others in her group sang about the sea, which is shared by Washington and B

That’s because the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Vancouver, might be about to get bigger than either Dakota Access or Keystone XL. People in the U.S. technically have no say in the matter, but that hasn’t kept them from fretting about increased tanker traffic in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Kai Sanburn, a nurse who lives on San Juan Island, says the point of the walk was “to raise funds for the only fight there is to stop this pipeline” — that is, the legal challenges that have been launched by Canada’s First Nations tribes of native peoples.

Kinder Morgan, the company that owns Trans Mountain, wants to triple the pipeline’s capacity in order to make room for oil to ship to California and Asia. That would mean 350 more tankers every year in the Salish Sea. That is, the connected marine waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia.

Kai Sanburn. Credit: Eilís O'Neill, KUOW/EarthFix

Sanburn says she’s worried about a potential oil spill and about the carbon released from extracting, processing, and burning more tar sands oil.

“We run the risk of losing that which we really, truly hold very, very dear,” she says.

As we talk, a cargo ship sails by, headed toward the Port of Vancouver.

All the oil tankers would have to pass through here — the narrow, windy Strait of Juan de Fuca separating Washington's Olympic Peninsula from British Columbia's Vancouver Island. One of the points they’d have to skirt is the Center for Whale Research on the west side of San Juan Island. That’s why, before getting on the ferry, I swung by to meet with Deborah Giles — or Giles, as she likes to be called.

Giles researches the salmon-eating orcas known as the “southern residents” that make their home in the Salish Sea. From her office, she can see ten miles across the water to the skyline of Victoria, in Canada.

“This is right smack dab in the center of the core critical habitat for the southern residents,” she says.

There are only seventy-eight of those orcas left, in part because shipping noise makes it harder for them to find food. Giles is worried about the noise from more tankers--and, like Sanburn, worried about a potential spill.

“Yes, there’s this crazy random border, but, if oil gets spilled in Canada, it’s not going to end at that imaginary border,” she says. “It makes me shudder to think how devastated this ecosystem would be.”

Kinder Morgan already has the Canadian government’s approval and plans to break ground in September.

So I headed to the Westridge Marine Terminal, east of Vancouver, to see where all this oil would get loaded onto tankers.

I made my way through gates and around massive fuel and oil tanks to meet with Mike Davies, the company’s director of marine affairs. He pointed to the trees close to the dock and told me the pipeline comes out through there.

“I kind of jokingly refer to it as the Honda Civic of marine loading facilities,” Davies says. “This is a very small facility.”

Mike Davies. Credit:  Eilís O'Neill, KUOW/EarthFix

Even if the expansion goes through, less than half the tankers in the Salish Sea will be heading to Westridge.

Canada’s oil sands are the third largest petroleum reserves in the world, but Canada only exports oil to one other country: the US.

This pipeline would change that--and “it's just good for Canada to be able to reach other markets,” Davies says.

Kinder Morgan has put more than $100 million into beefing up the spill response infrastructure--and, anyway, Davies adds, the risk of an oil spill is exaggerated.

“We've never had a release from a tanker loading in the history, the 60-year-plus history of the operations here,” he says.

But the marchers in Vancouver beg to differ.

I caught up with them for the second time as they took a lunch break at South Vancouver’s Gordon Park. They were tanned from three days of walking and spent their time napping under the trees and taping up their blisters. Gordon August, the Sechelt Nation’s chief, was leading the march.

Trans Mountain pipeline and oil tanker protest in Vancouver, British Columbia on May 28, 2017. Credit: Eilís O'Neill, KUOW/EarthFix

“Our lands will be affected by the pipeline,” he says. “Our waterways, our fishing--these are things how we live off the land. When they’re affected, we don’t have other ways and means of living.”

After a circle and a song, the protesters lined up two by two and start up again to the beat of the drum.

On the final day of the march, they walked down the miles of shadeless stripmall that lead from Vancouver proper out to the gates of the Westridge Terminal. That’s where I caught up with Kai Sanburn, the activist from San Juan Island, to ask her how the march had gone.

“One of the things that has been really moving has been the kind of welcome that we’ve had from the indigenous representatives,” she told me. “We are one world; we are one people; this is one ocean; we’re all in this together.”

After an initial public offering last week, Kinder Morgan now has the money it needs to build the pipeline. But the First Nations’ lawsuits are still making their way through Canada’s courts, and the participants in the March for the Salish Sea say they’re ready to put their bodies in the pipeline’s path if it comes to that.


Protesters from Washington's San Juan Islands prepare to board the ferry to join a march opposing expanding an oil pipeline in Canada. It would increase the number of tankers plying the waters of the Salish Sea, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Eilís O'Neill, KUOW