Gateway expose shows inaction no option

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November 2, 2013

The Oil Man and the Sea:

Navigating the Northern Gateway

By Arno Kopecky

Douglas & McIntyre

264 pages, $26.95

Reviewed by Aaron Shepard

Part rousing adventure and travelogue, part exposé, The Oil Man and the Sea follows journalist and travel writer Arno Kopecky and photographer Ilja Herb as they sail from Victoria up B.C.’s central coast. They travel not just as reporters but as activists, hoping to raise awareness about the environmental risks the Northern Gateway pipeline poses to one of the world’s last great wildernesses.

As with most books of this sort, we begin not with big themes, but the adventurer-writer beset by anchor mishaps, engine failure and an overwhelming array of nautical charts and equipment. At times in the first few chapters, their quest seems not just quixotic, but forgotten altogether. But the fumbling of these novice sailors is an intimate, effective way of immersing readers in an unfamiliar landscape. And their early misadventures dovetail nicely with one of the book’s main themes: the vibrant, hazardous complexity of the coastline and its people.

Kopecky introduces us, directly or indirectly, to the multitude of big names at the centre of the Northern Gateway drama, including Enbridge, the federal and provincial governments, the Joint Review Panel, the Heiltsuk, Gitga’at, Haisla Nations, the Pacific Pilotage Authority (the pilot boats that would lead oil tankers through the treacherous coastline), and Bill C-38, the federal omnibus bill that inexplicably closed B.C.’s oil spill response centre. We also meet a host of memorable characters: fishermen, engineers, environmentalists, First Nations elders and band councilors who offer their different opinions about pipelines, refineries and oil tankers.

But it is the coastline itself – a “labyrinth” of channels, straits, bays and islands – that remains the biggest player on stage, a place both robust and fragile with its turbulent seas, salmon runs and rich wildlife. Perhaps the most vivid evocation of place is near the book’s end, when Kopecky explores Douglas Channel and the humpback whales that may have to share their once-quiet waters with tankers bearing bitumen and liquefied natural gas.

Between conversations with the locals, fishing and grizzly bear watching – the book contains some gorgeous photos – Kopecky pulls the lens back to show the equally intricate web of national politics, science and economics. An adventure that begins with two young men goofing around on a sailboat becomes a story about Big Oil, and the future of a province, its people and its wilderness.

The Oil Man and the Sea is refreshingly current and vital, with a postscript that includes the deadly explosion in Lac-Megantic this past July. Disasters like Lac-Megantic and the Kalamazoo River bitumen spill in 2010 illustrate our complicity: our consumption drives the need to pull as much oil from the ground as humanly possible, whatever the risk. Kopecky’s quest for a tanker-free coast may indeed prove quixotic, but his message is that we should take responsibility, at the very least, for ensuring governments and industry enforce and follow strict environmental and safety regulations. No matter how confusing or paradoxical the issue of pipelines and the economy, our inaction is not an option.

Aaron Shepard is a Victoria writer. His debut novel, When is a Man, will be published in April 2014. 


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