Changing Planet

Following the Oil Trail: From Alberta to British Columbia

The first oil well in Western Canada. Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta.
The first oil well in Western Canada. Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. Photo: Ann Chen

VANCOUVER, BC – It’s nearing the end of January, and I am close to four months into my storytelling project, documenting the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline that will carry oil from the Athabasca oil sands in northern Alberta to the British Columbia coast. From the oil boom town of Fort McMurray, where the oil is mined to the unpopulated edge of the industrial city of Fort Saskatchewan where the pipeline will begin, I spent my first three months in Alberta tracing the path of the pipeline as well as researching the presence and significance of oil in the province. Where the oil is being extracted is as significant to this story as where it will be transported.

I’ve been in Vancouver since the beginning of January and will spend the next four and half months in British Columbia. This time, I will follow the pipeline route in reverse, starting with the oil tanker routes through the Hecate Strait between the Haida Gwaii and the mainland coast back towards the port city of Kitimat, also the end terminal for the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Traveling via ferry along the British Columbia coast, navigating the numerous islands and coastal inlets is a trip I’ve dreamed of making though I’ve always pictured it taking place in the summer instead of the dead of winter. It will be amazing, my new Canadian friends tell me, but do you have to go in February? Make sure you bring some antiemetics, they add.

Traveling these coastal waters in winter conditions is precisely what I want to experience. The British Columbia coast is known for its intricate shorelines, thousands of islands and deep inlets. It’s been compared to the fjord-laden geographies of Norway and southern Chile and are known for being difficult to navigate, particularly in the winter. Opponents of the pipeline include Coastal First Nations, an alliance of British Columbia’s Coastal First Nations who are concerned that an oil spill would have huge environmental and socioeconomic impacts in the region. Enbridge and some experts from the maritime and shipping community say the risk of a spill is lower than the critics might believe. While my ferry route won’t exactly follow the same one as the oil tankers, there will be a few overlapping moments during my journey and I will be able to experience firsthand what the conditions will be like at the worst time of the year.

From Alberta to British Columbia

Average retail prices for regular Gasoline for the last 52 weeks. Source: Natural Resources Canada
Average retail prices for regular gasoline (last 52 weeks). Source: Natural Resources Canada

Since I arrived in Edmonton in early October, the price of crude oil has fallen considerably. Even if you don’t follow the news, it’s impossible to ignore the low gas prices at the pump. A friend from Edmonton told me earlier this week that gas is now at 68 Canadian cents per liter. Four months earlier it was hovering at $1.14. While the 46 cents savings is being embraced on the consumer level, I can’t help but wonder how it will affect the workers in the industry. I also wonder, how is Enbridge thinking about the Northern Gateway in relation to oil prices?

Somewhere on Highway 63 between Fort McMurray and Edmonton. Photo: Ann Chen

On my most recent trip up to Fort McMurray in early December, I stayed with a young family originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. My host has been working in Fort McMurray for the last ten or so years as an electrician at various oil companies. He was on a rare day off while I was visiting. He had been on the job for close to a month without a break. I asked him how the volatility in the oil price was affecting his work. He told me the changes were affecting construction projects and not existing production ones and that given his tenure with the company, his position, working on existing projects was secure. I asked him what other changes he’s seen, in the past decade of working in the industry. There was more demand for trade work, he noticed, more interest in entering vocational schools for high school graduates. He also saw changes within corporations too. Things are more restrained now, he told me, compared to the rampant development of the early 2000s. Everything is more controlled, projects are developed in phases. Instead of hiring thousands of workers at a time, the companies are acting more conservatively. I was surprised by what he was telling me, how the changes in global oil prices could affect the day to day operations on an oil sands extraction site with such speed, such that construction for a new extraction project could be put on hold indefinitely.

Apart from similar drops in consumer prices at the gas pump, it is more difficult to see the socio-economic ramifications of falling oil prices in British Columbia. As I begin my research in British Columbia, I am seeing that temperature, climate and landscape aren’t the only differences between these two provinces. Opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline feels much stronger in British Columbia than in Alberta, where lives and livelihoods seem more complexly intertwined with the oil industry. Just last Sunday, I attended a town hall style event held at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society where MP (Member of Parliament) Nathan Cullen spoke out forcefully against the pipeline, introducing Bill C-628, which seeks to block oil tanker traffic along the northern British Columbia coastline. Almost every seat was filled, with many people leaning against three walls of the gymnasium. At roughly 250 people, it was the largest crowd of anti-pipeline supporters I’ve seen in Canada since attending the Tar Sands Healing Walk in June 2014. Compare this with a similar anti-pipelines talk I attended in Calgary, Alberta, organized by Greenpeace in early October which gathered maybe 20-30 audience members.

MP Nathan Cullen speaking to an audience at Take Back Our Coast, a town hall discussion about Bill C-628 and the Northern Gateway Pipeline on Saturday, January 18th, 2015.
MP Nathan Cullen speaking to an audience at Take Back Our Coast, a town hall discussion about Bill C-628 and the Northern Gateway Pipeline on Saturday, January 18th, 2015.

It feels too soon to begin drawing conclusions, especially since I’ve only just arrived in British Columbia. This is a complex issue that becomes ever more so as I dig deep into my research. The question I keep coming back to is, what is it about the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project that hits such a nerve? When I started on this journey, it seemed much clearer to me. Here was a proposal for a new energy infrastructure that would pass through pristine watersheds, crossing hundreds of fish-bearing streams with the potential to pollute human communities and untouched wilderness. Indigenous, non-indigenous, human or non-human, all who depend upon these natural ecosystems are concerned about this potentially disruptive project. But LNG (liquefied natural gas) pipelines are being proposed and approved in the very places where Northern Gateway is being blocked. Why does the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project drum up so much attention and controversy? This is a question I will be asking myself and others I meet, as I journey up north in the upcoming months.

Coming Up: DIY Aerial Photography and Mapping

A significant portion of my research will be produced by a set of grassroots mapping tools developed by The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science or Public Lab for short. In addition to using these tools to create aerial images of public areas along the proposed pipeline route, I will also be leading training workshops in the communities I visit, so the ability to create community-derived cartographic data based on local knowledge are in the hands of the community itself. My last few posts focused more on sharing my experiences in unraveling the story of oil and a pipeline in two provinces. In my next post, I will describe in more detail the technical and creative aspects of my project and how flying a kite can produce high-quality data. But first, if you live in the Vancouver area and are free this Saturday, January 31st, I will be leading a DIY Aerial Photography and Mapping Workshop at the offices of Ecotrust in downtown Vancouver. RSVP if you would like to join.



Ann Chen is a photographer, multimedia artist and researcher from New York City. She is currently in Western Canada tracing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline through collective storytelling, community mapping and citizen science. Follow Ann on TwitterInstagram, Facebook, or her blog.

Ann Chen, a multimedia artist and researcher from New York City, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. She will focus on mapping the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in Canada through collective storytelling and citizen science.
  • Harry

    One reason LNG and natural gas pipelines is less controversial than the Enbridge and KinerMorgan projects is perhaps the notion that natural gas transported by pipelines represents a less dangerous commodity (ie. spills…both land and sea). Another argument could be that natural gas production is produced and taxed in British Columbia, while oil pipelines is merely transporting a commodity across the province with little benefit offsetting the risk.

  • David Larson

    You’ve answered your own question, so many of us are dead set against the Gateway project because ridiculously high fuel prices this past decade have crippled or killed the majority of existing traditional businesses in BC. Even pro-development people like me are against it because we can see that once a single pipeline hits tide water we can kiss our economy goodbye because it will drive fuel prices out of our reach. We will be forced to compete with Chinese state owned companies for our own natural resources while they have the advantage of a subjugated work force and lax environmental codes.

    Also your take on the LNG situation is not correct, it does not enjoy wide spread acceptance! Crunch the numbers that industry and our provincial government are throwing around and they don’t add up to anything more than hopeful hogwash from a government desperate for a miracle. It’s like watching a shell game, keep the numbers changing so much we can’t follow it all. It all looks good but when the shell is lifted the ball is not there and we all lose. It is widely felt that LNG is a red herring and the moment one is in place, low LNG prices will shut it down and bitumen will flow in its place. There is not a savy businessman on this planet that would invest the kind of money in infrastructure needed to get LNG flowing here considering how competitive and risky it is if they didn’t have a back up plan and that plan is bitumen.

    As for first nation buy in on LNG it has largely been band councel members being bought off, I can put you in touch with lots of native people that are pretty upset over being sold out for what amounts to trinkets and beads.

    Good luck with your story but please don’t neglect the LNG factor regarding the Gateway project, they both suck for BC and we don’t either one of them.

    Sincerely, David Larson

  • Trevor Marr

    I am pro Canadian industry. We are one of the most regulated and responsible.

    When the proper mitigations are in place, there should not be a spill and any chance of it or size of it is small and controllable. I support an informed conversation, risk reviews, hazard assessments, risk mitigations and Lessons Learned. That is how progress in 2015 is light years ahead of those that are spreading doubt. Support your own Country! If you have a concern, ask an expert and he can either resolve your issue (because it has already been raised and addressed before) or if it is a new issue, it can be discussed, resolved and we move forward. Progress is better made with understanding and knowledge.

  • Paul Ziakin

    I am new to the Northern Coast of BC. Before coming up here, as I watched the development of this pipeline and other fossil fuel projects being proposed on the news, I wondered about the sense of it all. Now that I am here, in the midst of the most beautiful, untouched land and sea wilderness on this earth, I consider the entire plan a complete and tragic folly.
    Good luck with your project Ann.

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