As the final round of the Joint Review Panel hearings into Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project began this week, one local journalist has problems with the coverage of the issue. Robin Rowland argues that many of the reporters are not based in northern B.C. and report the news through a business and political lens rather than balancing it with environmental reporting. Simply "balancing" Enbridge's stance on the project against the views of activists and First Nations members does not adequately explain the Northern Gateway debate.

By Robin Rowland

Have you ever heard of Hunter Creek, B.C.?

The fact that 99.9 per cent of Canadian journalists haven’t heard of Hunter Creek is a problem.More specifically, the reporters, energy writers, business columnists and political analysts covering the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker controversy have never heard of Hunter Creek, means that they have missed the entire story.

In a time of media budget cuts, staff shortages and ideological divide, it’s far too easy for the media to simply drop the Northern Gateway into convenient folders: “national park” versus “good industrial jobs;”conservative/free enterprise versus liberal/socialist/green; British Columbia versus Alberta, and on and on.

A slide presentation by the environmental group Douglas Channel Watch, to District of Kitimat Council, March 5, 2012, shows a large boulder leaning against a tree on the slopes of Mt. Nimbus. The tree and moss growing out of the boulder indicate how long it’s been there. (Robin Rowland photo)

The real question of the Northern Gateway, a question the media ignores is: can Enbridge safely handle the often unstable geology of B.C.? Enbridge and their supporters say “yes.” For most people in northwestern B.C., the answer is “no.” Even among the few supporters of Northern Gateway, some have their doubts. So does the province of B.C.: the lawyers from the province, in their final arguments to the Northern Gateway Joint Review panel said to Enbridge “Trust me is not good enough.”

It is the geology of B.C. that upsets the neatly packaged throw-away sentence found in 90 per cent of news stories and columns about the Northern Gateway, “First Nations and environmentalists oppose the project.” Reporters and columnists repeat this phrase so often in hopes of “balance” that it has become meaningless. It's inconvenient to report that opposition crosses across the political spectrum, including a large number of green conservatives who, while they support development, also hunt, fish, hike and boat and respect the environment.

The geological forces that created Alberta’s bitumen sands also created the mountains and valleys of B.C., with numerous geological hazards and choke points that could block landlocked Alberta's “gateway” to the Pacific.

Hunter Creek is one of the choke points.

A tug enters  Kitimat harbour, on Douglas Channel, April 14, 2013 (Robin Rowland photo)

In the summer of 2011, members of the Kitimat environmental group Douglas Channel Watch hiked into the bush to Mt. Nimbus where Enbridge plans to drill a tunnel. The pipeline would emerge from the tunnel, and then follow Hunter Creek down a steep mountain slope. Tall mature trees had flat tops, an indication that when the trees were younger, those tops had been sheared off  by an avalanche. Huge boulders rested against those mature trees, evidence of mid-term avalanches. On many of the slopes were fast-growing “avalanche alders,” which take root in areas cleared by avalanches. All of this is evidence that the slopes of Mt. Nimbus and the route down to the river had been hit by avalanches time and time again.

Hunter Creek has produced “alluvial fans” from debris flows where an avalanche, high water, or combination of both can create water and debris flash floods down the creek bed. These flash floods could take out a portion of the pipeline, even if it is underground.

Enbridge's own documentation identified Hunter Creek as a possible hazard capable of causing, in a worst case scenario, a spill of two million litres. However, there were few details. Enbridge failed to hire a forestry technician to study the slopes.

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The B.C. Department of Justice lawyers, acting on behalf of the province before the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel, included Hunter Creek in their argument brief that contains pages of ”geotechnical hazards.”  Heavy snow in the northwest, which would not only prevent crews from reaching the site of a possible pipeline rupture, but also could hide dangerous “pinholes” in the pipeline causing a small but continuous spill may not be detected by the company's monitoring.

So what are some of the other problems with the coverage of Northern Gateway?

Our energy writers can cover this from Alberta. I have heard this told to me time and time again. Whether this is a case of cost-saving or blinkered management, the idea that an energy reporter based in Calgary or Edmonton can fairly and accurately cover northwestern B.C. is a complete contradiction. Those reporters are embedded in the oil patch culture. Their reporting constantly fails to reflect the culture and politics of northwestern B.C. — and it never mentions the geology of B.C.

Fly-in, Fly-out reporting. Kitimat is the terminal for the Northern Gateway project. Apart from the two days when the pack came to town for the opening of the Joint Review Panel hearings in January 2012, I can count the number of reporters who have come to Kitimat on my fingers. They stayed in town just one or two days, interviewed the local politicians, the leaders of the Haisla Nation and business leaders, but no one else, and then flew out again. They never bothered to go into the back country to see the geology. Only a couple tried to go down the Douglas Channel to see the tanker route.

Coverage has been confined to business and political reporters, which creates a bias in favour of the business point of view or a political horse race. Few news organizations have environment or science writers who could have covered the story in a way that balances business and politics.

Nature abhors a vacuum. The lack of proper coverage from the mainstream media has been filled by activists and PR on both sides, with the well-organized opponent groups often gaining the upper hand. In their hunger for free video and photos, the media often takes images from the activist groups, sometimes with no credit, sometimes with a name credit that few would recognize, but never mentioning that the source of those images comes from one side of the story.

The Joint Review Panel hears final arguments in Terrace, B.C., began on June 17. Arguments are expected to last for two weeks. The JRP will present its report to the federal cabinet by December 31.

You can find Enbridge Northern Gateway's final arguments here.Arguments from other intervenors and government participants can be found here.

Robin Rowland retired from CBC News in March 2010 and returned to his home town of Kitimat, expecting to concentrate on wildlife photography. He still photographs wildlife and covers the Northern Gateway as a freelancer and on his blog Northwest Coast Energy News.

Photo of Robin Rowland by Neith MacDonald

First image: A slide presentation by the environmental group Douglas Channel Watch, to District of Kitimat Council, March 5, 2012, shows a large boulder leaning against a tree on the slopes of Mt. Nimbus. The tree and moss growing out of the boulder indicate how long it’s been there. (Robin Rowland photo)

Second image: A tug enters  Kitimat harbour, on Douglas Channel, April 14, 2013 (Robin Rowland photo)