National Geographic Turns Lens on Spirit Bears, Pipeline Fears

July 26, 2011
Judith Lavoie,
Times Colonist


The international spotlight is about to be turned on one of B.C.'s simmering environmental controversies as millions of National Geographic readers are introduced to spirit bears and potential threats posed by the proposed Enbridge pipeline.

The magazine's August cover story looks at the spirit (Kermode) bears of the Great Bear Rainforest. The accompanying story, titled "Pipeline Through Paradise," takes readers to Hartley Bay, where members of the Gitga'at First Nation talk about continuing leaks from the sunken Queen of the North ferry and their pipeline fears.

Environmental groups are delighted that worldwide attention will be drawn to the risks of piping oil across mountains and rivers and then shipping it across the rough waters of B.C.'s northern coast.

"From our perspective it's fantastic because, as people find out about this, they are shocked that this could be happening in Canada, that the federal government is actually considering this mega-project that could bring such harm to the coast," said Ian McAllister, co-founder of Pacific Wild.

"But it is embarrassing and frustrating that B.C. cannot be exposed in a magazine such as National Geographic for our environmental leadership rather than our environmental destruction."

Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway is disappointed the story does not include more information about planned marine safety measures, such as improvements to navigational aids on the north coast and strict protocols about types of tankers and when they can operate.

"We gave them access to our senior executives and they chose not to use any of that," Stanway said.

"On the whole it was not an unreasonable piece, but some of the language, such as when they talk about a supertanker highway, is inflammatory — perhaps deliberately so," he said.

Reaction will be monitored closely because of the magazine's vast reach.

National Geographic has a monthly circulation of about eight-million subscribers and a global readership of 60 million, said National Geographic Society spokeswoman Anna Kukelhaus Dynan.

"The spirit bear story is the cover story for both the U.S. and Canada editions," she said. "We don't yet know how many local language editions took the story . . . . but, as of now, several are running the story."

The August edition is online and subscribers are now receiving their copies. It will hit newsstands Aug. 26.

The proposed $5.5-billion Enbridge dual pipeline, under review by a joint panel from the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, would run from the Alberta oilsands to Kitimat, where a new port would be built so tankers could ship the oil to Asian markets.

A decision is expected by the end of next year and, if approved, the pipeline could be operational by 2016.

The National Geographic stories, written by Seattle writer Bruce Barcott with photos by Vancouver Island photographer Paul Nicklen, say the Queen of the North taught the Gitga'at two lessons.

"No matter how safe the ship, the most mundane human error can sink it. And when disaster strikes, they alone will be left to clean up the mess."

However, Stanway said the Queen of the North is not a fair comparison to double-hulled tankers.

Liquified Natural Gas tankers already operate in the area, he said.

"The idea that this is something dangerous for this sort of coast is completely wrong," he said.

The pipeline and Northern Gateway are opposed by more than 80 First Nations. The Dene Nation, stretching from northern Alberta to the northern Northwest Territories, announcing their opposition this week.

Barcott hopes the stories will start a debate because little is known about the pipeline proposal outside Canada.

"We are talking about the possibility of an enormous expansion of tanker traffic on the west coast and no one in the U.S. knows about it," he said.

Barcott, who covered the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, hopes that if Enbridge does get approval, everything is done to ensure the company has adequate cleanup plans.

"Because, when it goes bad, it goes bad in a really rotten, dirty way," he said.

Spirit bears, also known as Kermode bears, are a subspecies of the American black bear that live in the central and north coastal areas of B.C. Roughly one in 10 have white or cream-coloured coats.

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