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My Puget Sound fishing partners are six and eight years old - my sons Nico and Luca. Despite our best efforts we are not yet a major threat to our iconic Northwest salmon - but all that time fishing gives us a lot of time to appreciate the gorgeous islands, the mountains and the sea in between.
Being on the water so much, with few distractions from fish on the line, we see a lot of whales, porpoises, seals, Osprey and more oil tankers. In the early 2000s, there were 20 or so oil tankers passing through our waters a year, carrying oil from the Kinder Morgan pipeline terminus in Vancouver to destinations near and far. Today there are more than 70. A new pipeline would quadruple tanker traffic to more than 300 ships annually. The even scarier part: these tankers aren't filled with normal oil. They are loaded with bitumen, a synthetic oil from Canada's tar sands. The tar sands, which is the largest fossil fuel project on the planet, produces some of the dirtiest oil in the world.
Where there's oil, spills will follow. Already, tar sands bitumen is seeping into our state - but where, in what quantities, and how we would clean it up are all completely unknown. Tar sands bitumen is more corrosive, creates more pollution and it sinks in water. Simply put, we don't know how to clean it up. Seeing huge oil tankers within view of Orca whales is scary enough - knowing those ships are increasingly filled with something that's not even as "good" as normal oil gives me nightmares.
Then there is coal and the all risk, no reward to make us into an exit ramp to China. Other threats will come that put our clean air and water at risk, all for the immense profits of distant owners who have no stake in our communities. We in Bellingham are on the front line of a question the whole nation must ask: should we invest in these industries of the past?
People are rising up and saying "no!" And while the power of these industries seems immense, they are starting, for the first time, to lose the battle over our future.
The Enbridge Pipeline, another tar sands project in British Columbia, was a done deal. Despite $100 million in investment, much from China, it is now considered a longshot. The Keystone Pipeline, yes, tar sands again, has so far been stopped. And just last month, an area known as the Sacred Headwaters in far northern British Columbia was the site of a major victory.
Indigenous communities in the Sacred Headwaters, pushed beyond the breaking point, simply said no! They stood on the line and prevented Shell from entering their territory. The Tahltan were joined by rural towns, other indigenous communities, unions, ranchers, ForestEthics and other environmental groups. The B.C. government recognized that the explosive situation needed a solution, and Shell, having done so much damage elsewhere, was persuaded to leave the Sacred Headwaters. It's a remarkable victory - oil and gas development was permanently banned.
The lesson of the Sacred Headwaters, the example of turning the tide on the Enbridge pipeline, the win thus far in stopping the Keystone pipeline, it is all due to the power of ordinary people standing up to industry's worst ideas. And it's a reminder that whatever divided us in the past needs to stay there. The bottom line is that the citizens of any region have a lot more in common with each other than they do with the dinosaur industries promoting these risky projects. And they can be beaten.
Welcome to the future. Looking back on this moment, it will be a turning point, the moment when spreading the devastating risk these industries represent on all of us for the benefit of the very few, was no longer accepted. We need the great state of Washington to stay that way - a place where what's best for most of us prevails, where the jobs we create are not paid for on the backs of our children's generation, and where my sons and I may still not catch a salmon, but where it's still at least theoretically possible.
Todd Paglia is the executive director of the environmental advocacy organization ForestEthics. He works and lives in Bellingham.