The proposed Enbridge Gateway pipeline to Kitimat is stirring strong public opposition to the super tankers it would attract along British Columbia's northern coast.
But a bigger risk may lie in the steeply rising number of oil tankers already plying B.C.'s coast -- up nearly 50 per cent in just two years -- to handle the growing flow of tar sands petroleum from Alberta.
Their port of call is the busiest in Canada: Vancouver harbour, terminus for an existing pipeline to Alberta that will more than double the amount of crude it carries if its owner makes good on its plans.
If that happens, says a veteran B.C. oil spill prevention expert, the further rise in tanker traffic will compound the risk of an environmental catastrophe in the treacherous waters of the southern Gulf Islands, potentially impacting the Fraser Estuary and San Juan Islands as well.
65 tankers a year in Burrard Inlet
The pipeline owned by Kinder Morgan extends from Haines Alberta to Westridge located in north Burnaby. The capacity was recently expanded to 300,000 barrels per day -- almost 60 per cent of the proposed volume of the Enbridge Gateway pipeline in Northern B.C.
Kinder Morgan confirmed to The Tyee plans to further expand the pipeline capacity to 700,000 barrels per day subject to markets conditions and regulatory approval.
According to Kinder Morgan:
"New pipeline capacity will be required to transport growing volumes of product from Alberta's oil sands. Recent studies have concluded that emerging West Coast and Asia Pacific markets provide an opportunity for Canada to become a significant contributor in these markets."
Upping the odds of disaster
Marine spill expert Stafford Reid believes that this increased oil tanker traffic could in fact be more dangerous than the proposed new tanker traffic from the controversial Gateway pipeline to the North Coast.
Marine experts believe oil spill risks increase with the number of shipments, rather than the size of tankers. The Burnaby terminal and Burrard Inlet cannot handle larger vessels, which results in more tanker traffic.
"One transit of a 350,000 deadweight ton (DWT) tanker going out of Kitimat could be of less risk than three or four 100,000 DWT tankers currently going out of Burnaby," said Reid, who sits on the federally mandated Pacific Regional Advisory Council on Oil Spill Response and has two decades of experience in marine vessel risk assessment and spill response preparedness, including 17 years as an emergency planning specialist for the B.C. government.
While Enbridge has been in the media spotlight over the proposed Kitimat project, few have taken notice of the quiet expansion of the Kinder Morgan TMX pipeline, and resulting increased oil tanker traffic through the southern Gulf Islands that may reach 150 vessels per year.
Because Kinder Morgan already owns the pipeline right of way to the coast, the latest anchor loop expansion -- even through Jasper National Park -- was completed with a grandfathered approval with the Canadian government.
'Boiling Reef' and other hazards
At present there has been no comparative risk studies on southern and northern tanker routes. Both are fraught with potential hazards. "The proposed northern tanker routes and the current southern tanker routes share both complex and difficult navigational challenges and valued environmental and commercial coastal resources," says Reid.
Southern tankers exiting Vancouver must thread the narrow channels through the Southern Gulf Islands including Haro Strait, the aptly named "Boiling Reef," and Race Rocks with tidal currents up to seven knots.
Washington State authorities consider these hazardous waters and even marine pilots refer to this as their "pucker zone." A spill here could potentially deposit crude throughout the Southern Gulf Islands, the San Juan Islands and the globally important Fraser River Estuary. Much of this area of the Salish Sea is a low-energy environment. A slick here would not be readily flushed, out and any shoreline crude would require manual clean-up.
The northern tanker route through narrow Douglas Channel leading from Kitimat is no less dangerous. Last fall a 28,000 ton bulk carrier went aground there and the bow was seriously damaged. No bunker fuel oil was spilled but and the vessel had to return to Kitimat for repairs. What would have happened if it was an oil tanker?
Reid points out that even ships carrying non-hazardous cargo can create an oil spill. "You got to remember that these vessels hold between 1,000 to 10,000 tons of bunker fuel to run their engines and ship-systems."
Tug boat guidelines questioned
The dangers of a serious oil tanker accident in either route are exacerbated by Canada's antiquated and unenforceable guidelines for tug escort.
For instance, oil tankers greater than 40,000 DWT leaving Vancouver are required to have two escorting tugs accompany them through the Strait of Georgia, Haro Strait, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
American law also requires that two escort tugs accompany all oil tankers out of port in case the vessel loses power or runs into trouble. However, U.S. laws specify vessel type, training and mandatory drills. The U.S. has also invested millions in escort tug studies and simulations.
Reid believes our regulatory safeguards for tugboats are woefully inadequate. "In Canada, you cannot find a copy of the tanker escort guidelines, let alone any performance monitoring information." Transport Canada confirmed that these guidelines were not developed by the Canadian government, but the BC Coast Pilots Association.
This lack of government oversight also extends to Transport Canada's response after an accident occurs such as the one last year out of Kitimat.
According to Reid, "In the United States they would up one side and down the other of the guy. They will hold that vessel, search his records, go through the protocols. Not in Canada, they would haul them off, say yeah it still floats, and send him home. It's a totally different world."
'Everybody is low-staffed'
While Reid is critical of how well prepared we are to deal with a spill, he makes pains to point out there are many committed and qualified people in our public service but they are often not allowed to do their jobs.
"The biggest the problem you have in government right now is that everybody is low staffed, whether you are Environment Canada, Transport Canada or the Ministry of Environment. There is a lot of new people coming in, they are dealing with budget cuts and they are being reorganized to death. Paralysis by analysis."
In the meantime, warns Reid, tanker traffic on the B.C. coast is quietly being scaled up with virtually no public engagement process and outdated regulation.
"People say they don't want oil tankers moving product off the west coast and I tell them it's happening now, guys, the horse is out of the barn."