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Speech to Bill C-48 Amendment

Honourable senators, Bill C-48, it would seem, puts us between a rock and a hard place. The rock, some would say, is the environmental catastrophe of an oil spill on the north coast of B.C., which would forever damage the livelihoods and traditions of those who live on or near the water. The hard place, others assert, is the economic catastrophe of stranded oil assets in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

A narrative has emerged in this chamber and beyond that our choice is a binary one. We have been led to believe that we need to choose between crashing into the rock and running aground on the hard place.

But do we? In our zeal to simplify, have we made the rock bigger and the hard place harder than they are? Have we allowed overzealous and, dare I say, alarmist arguments on both sides to corral us into the dead end of a decision that will, either way, result in a shipwreck?

What if the rock and the hard place are not as close to our vessel as we have been told? What if the situation on either side of the debate is not as immediate, not as dire and not as permanent as we have led ourselves to believe? And what if there is, in fact, a pathway between the rock and the hard place? Are we willing to find it?

I believe the amendment before us is that pathway. I am talking about a way to navigate safely and consciously between the two extremes that have been laid before us as the only options.

There is no risk currently of a major oil tanker spill because there are no large oil tankers within 126 kilometres of B.C.’s north coast. And there is no risk of stranding oil assets in Alberta and Saskatchewan at this time because there is no pipeline from the Prairies to B.C.’s north coast, nor is there a concrete project proposed for such. If the TMX project gets the go-ahead next week and it comes to fruition, the risk of stranded assets is further reduced.

To pass Bill C-48 in its current form, resulting in a permanent ban on oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s north coast, could lead to a situation in the future where the transport of oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to British Columbia is limited. Conversely, to reject Bill C-48 could undermine the voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone off northern B.C., increasing the risk of an oil spill — which is why we should avoid either scenario.

Honourable senators, sober second thought cannot predict the future. We do not know if residents of B.C.’s north coast, especially the First Nations who have inhabited those lands for millennia, may change their minds about having an indefinite embargo on oil tankers carrying more than 12,500 metric tonnes of crude or persistent oil. Likewise, we do not know if there is, in fact, a business case for a pipeline from Alberta to northern British Columbia, and if there are corporations with the know-how, financing and access to markets to bring such a project to fruition. By presenting the choice on Bill C-48 as binary, we are both exaggerating the risk on either side and pretending to have more information than is currently at our disposal.

I support the proposed amendment in part because it admits to our knowledge limitations. Tidewater access is indeed crucial for landlocked resources to find their way to markets in Asia, but we cannot be sure that Asian markets will support a second pipeline to the West Coast, given the rapidly changing nature of energy markets.

Similarly, if there is a solid business case for a pipeline to Canada’s northwest coast, I think it would be reckless of us to assume that all the residents of the coast would choose to permanently disallow the development of facilities that could provide for tankers to safely and sustainably export Canadian oil and gas to markets in Asia. Should we not allow them the right to change their minds if new information is available on the potential benefits and risks of oil tanker traffic off the north coast of B.C.?

The point, after all, is not whether a pipeline to the north coast should be stopped in its tracks through a ban on oil tanker traffic since there is, at this point in time, no pipeline to be stopped. It is, rather, that the First Nations most directly affected by an oil tanker ban should have the right to choose whether or not they consider the risk to be acceptable — if there were a genuine business case for such a project.

What the amendment says, honourable senators, in effect, is that we are not ready to answer the question of whether a permanent ban is warranted. We don’t know if coastal First Nations will change their minds about a ban. We don’t know if a northern pipeline is needed and who would build one. We don’t know if market demand in Asia will support the decades of oil exports from Canada that would be needed to justify the building of a pipeline and terminal. We can only guess at the geopolitics of trans-Pacific trade, especially on a strategic resource such as oil. And we do not know what breakthrough innovations that may be in the offing — from crude oil transportation methods, to oil tanker safety, to more affordable and accessible renewable energy.

The proposed regional assessment that forms an essential part of the amendment will answer some of these questions. In fact, Bill C-48 already contains a provision for the possibility of a regulatory review to assess, A, the latest science and evidence on how oil products act when spilled; B, innovations and technological developments in the transportation of oil; C, the state of cleanup technology. This amendment will make that regulatory review mandatory and expand on it through the regional assessment process that is contemplated in Bill C-69.

One point that both advocates and opponents of Bill C-48 agree on is the limitations of Canada’s oil spill preparedness and response regime on B.C.’s north coast, and the lack of coastal protection in general. Coastal nations rely on the health of the ocean for their subsistence and economic development. A regional assessment à la Bill C-69 would shed light on the risks to this unique ecosystem and could pave the way for a coastal protection plan so that if the ban is lifted, all residents of the coast can be reassured that environmental safeguards are in place.

A mandatory review by Parliament, built on the findings of a regional assessment as prescribed in Bill C-69, including meaningful consultation with First Nations, is an example of how the Senate can exercise prudence and wisdom.

Honourable senators, in Bill C-48, the other place has sent us the following question: Should there be a permanent ban on oil tankers off the coast of Northern B.C.?

Our answer should be that this question is not ready to be answered. It is unfortunate that the government has put to us a question that is not ready to be answered. But the oil tanker ban was a campaign promise of the then-leader of the Liberal Party, now Prime Minister. We should consider Bill C-48 in that light.

If you accept the Salisbury Convention, you should not vote against the bill. I recognize that some senators do not agree with the Salisbury Convention. If you fall in that camp, you should still ask if the Bill C-48 meets the high test of the Senate voting against the government bill — an act of defiance so rare that it has taken place only four times since the Second World War.

Even if you feel that the high test has been met, there remains yet a reason to pause so as to consider if a reasonable amendment can be found in order to send the bill back to the other place for reconsideration. I believe that amendment has been found.

Honourable senators, I cannot be sure the government will accept this amendment. I have high confidence this it will be seriously considered. For one thing, First Nations on the B.C. North Coast who are for the tanker ban, as well as First Nations groups in the same region who are against the ban, have expressed support for a mandatory review of Bill C-48 and proper consultation with affected provinces and relevant Indigenous jurisdictions.

This amendment, after all, underscores the principle of self-determination for First Nations in a way that Bill C-48, in its original form, did not. To use the colourful metaphor that Senator Sinclair offered us just a little while ago: One dish, one spoon.

Of course, there will be those who will huff and puff about how this amendment sells out the environment or landlocked provinces. We are not selling out in any way. There is no dishonour in a B.C. senator telling the residents of the North Coast that the country is not ready for a permanent ban on tanker traffic off that coast. Just as there is no dishonour in an Albertan senator telling Albertans that the lifting of an oil tanker ban is not a panacea for the deeper challenges facing the oil and gas industry in Canada. There is dishonour, however, if we use Bill C-48 as an opportunity to stoke division and inflame interprovincial discontent.

As senators in the federal Parliament, part of our job is to defend the federation. Yes, we represent our regions, but we do our regions a disservice if we knowingly encourage false claims and exaggerated fears.

Honourable senators, we are not between a rock and a hard place. We do not have to throw ourselves in either direction in the belief that we have to choose one or the other. The amendment before us responds to the situation in B.C.’s North Coast as it is, rather than the situation that we fear it might be.

I choose neither the imaginary rock nor the hypothetical hard place, but opt instead for the proposed amendment that I believe will take us to safe harbour. I hope you will join me.