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Oil Spill Threats to BC Just Got Bigger

Enbridge and Kinder Morgan each aim to pump more tar sands gunk to our coast.

Rafe Mair 14 Nov

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every second Monday. Read his previous columns here. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian.

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Knowing spills are inevitable, why would we allow the risk?

[Editor's note: Rafe Mair's 80th birthday is being celebrated Nov. 24, and you can be there. Find out more here.]

Now that the Obama administration has delayed its decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to refineries in Texas, we had better gear up for quite a fight here in British Columbia. The pressure just rose to push through two dangerous oil sands pipeline projects running through our own province.

Before I take you through my thinking, let me address two questions I am frequently asked. Are you now a socialist? And, are you against all progress?

My answer to the first question is simple -- socialism no longer exists in its original form other than in the minds of theorizing college professors. I believe in a mixed economy, a welfare state in the best sense of that term, and would be a Democrat in U.S. terms and a Social Democrat in Europe. I would be part of New Labour in the U.K.

I've done a lot of thinking on where I stand now and when I was in government, and I see a progression towards more social ideas but can, and do, make the case that my record in government shows a leftish tinge.

As to progress, let's talk about this in a bit of depth, not one-liners.

I am NOT against "progress," but say that what is and what is not "progress" has to be judged case by case. Just because it's new and fashionable doesn't make it progress.

To boil it down to cases, let's look in some depth at the projected Enbridge pipelines proposal. It is two parallel lines, one carrying the tar sands gunk, known as bitumen, and the other to take the condensate, the stuff they use to transport the bitumen, back to the tar sands. Two potential disasters for the price of one.


I would argue this case from the No side even if we were making bundles of money and employing thousands of people -- but let's look at the profit side.

B.C. gets zilch out of this. Alberta, with the lowest royalty impositions in the world, makes money in the sense that they charge a royalty and are not required to pay the environmental costs. B.C.'s "share" comes in the abstract sense that the feds get money in which we share. From the pipelines we get the peppercorn rent of a right-of-way.

The pipelines will hire people in various aspects of construction, but before we get too excited about that, these jobs will be temporary and most of the workers who fill them will be from out of the province. Once completed, there will be maintenance jobs only.

Let's talk frankly about jobs, and lest you think I'm callous on the subject, I've known joblessness big time, where friends were putting food in our freezer. Employment is a big issue.

But can we use potential employment as a reason for doing bad things with permanent consequences? Let's put this in terms people in the Lower Mainland would understand.

We have far too many unemployed people here with an obvious way to alleviate it: log Stanley Park. It's all second growth and there for the plucking. After that's done, think of the construction jobs when the park is made over into high rises!

You may think this a silly argument, but why? If we're going to seriously threaten our wilderness, the animals there and three major salmon rivers, why not Stanley Park -- and let's subdivide Little Mountain while we're at it. Both would provide lots of jobs.

In both the forgoing examples, there would be lots of employment of British Columbians, and there wouldn't be any bad things left over, such as leaky pipelines.

Employment is always an evocative argument, but can it be used to trump arguments about what will be left over when the employment is over?

Pipe dreams

What is that Enbridge wants to do?

First, the pipelines.

Here is the proposal -- two parallel 1,170 kilometre oil pipelines between Kitimat, B.C. and Bruderheim, Alberta. The proposal includes the construction of a marine terminal at Kitimat, and associated tanker traffic. One pipeline would move 525,000 barrels of crude oil per day west to Kitimat, and the other would carry 193,000 barrels of condensate east to the tar sands.

If you doubt the fact that there will be ruptures in the pipeline, I invite you to look at the company's (Enbridge) website and what they will do when there is one.

It's interesting to look at Enbridge's spill in July 2010 at Kalamazoo, Michigan. It took two days before Enbridge responded, and at this time 15 months later, they're still cleaning up -- they can never completely do the job. And the Kalamazoo River runs through developed, thus accessible land.

When the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines have their first spill and it's in the wilderness, can you imagine the horror story that will be? How do you know when there's been a rupture? How do you get there? How do you get equipment there? Once there, what can you do? Isn't it fair to say that the damage will be permanent with catastrophic impacts on wildlife and salmon streams and rivers, and nothing can change that?

It must always be remembered that we're not talking about a "risk" here, but a mathematical certainty. Let's be clear. We're looking at ongoing, certain spills in our sensitive wilderness, all of which are almost impossible to reach in a shorter term, and so will do permanent damage to this precious land.

Now let's look at the tanker traffic which would result from these pipelines.

Former federal environment minister David Anderson had this to say: "If oil tanker traffic is allowed off the coast, it becomes a statistical question of when, not if, an accident is going to occur."

220 supertankers would ply remote BC coast

I'm grateful to the Living Oceans Society for the following facts from their carefully documented paper entitled: Shipping on the British Columbia Coast. Current Status, Projected Trends, Potential Casualties, and Our Ability to Respond: A Briefing Report. Sointula, BC: Living Oceans Society. (The full report can be found on their website.)

"Known as bunker fuel, tankers carry between 2,000 and 8,000 bbls of fuel for this purpose. Because of their huge mass, tankers are very difficult to steer and stop. A loaded supertanker can take long as 15 minutes (and 3 km) to come to a full stop, and has a turning diameter of 2 km.

"If approved, an average of 220 supertankers will pass through the confined waterways of the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.'s North and Central Coast each year, exporting oil to Asian and southern U.S. markets and importing condensate to Alberta."

Where will these pipelines go?

The following, from the Skeena Wild Protection Society, has not been contested by Enbridge:

"The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project proposal includes two parallel 1,170 kilometre pipelines from the tar sands in northern Alberta to a proposed oil port in Kitimat. One pipeline would carry between 400,000 to 1,000,000 barrels a day of crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the B.C. coast. The second pipeline would carry 193,000 barrels a day of condensate, a mixture containing chemicals and petroleum used to dilute the thick, molasses like crude oil so that is can travel by pipeline. The proposed Enbridge pipeline would require over 1,000 stream and river crossings -- this includes several hundred crossings in the Copper and Morice watersheds, two of the Skeena's largest salmon producing tributaries."

Coasting towards disaster

Let's look at our coastline and what will happen after certain oil spills. This from the Living Oceans Society study, which says:

"The coastlines of the northern B.C. are among the richest in the world. It includes numerous salmon and Gray whale migratory routes, at least 650 spawning rivers, the Pacific Flyway, and the feeding habitat of Humpback whales and Orca. The wild salmon economy in B.C. -- including commercial fishing, fish processing and sport fishing generate close to $1.7 billion combined each year in B.C. The commercial fishery in B.C. employs approximately 16,000 people. Additionally, the north coast crab fishery supports 41 commercial crab vessels that fish Dungeness crab in Hecate Strait, injecting another $20 million into local economies. An oil spill along the B.C. coast would devastate marine animals and destroy their habitats, with colossal consequences on local communities, fisheries and related tourism industries -- even more catastrophic than the Exxon Valdes oil spill of 1989.

"The north and central coast present some of the most hostile environments for oil tanker traffic -- it is one of the most active earthquake zones in Canada and the stormy unpredictable nature of the weather has given it a reputation for having some of the worst winter storms. Winds have been recorded at 200 km/hour, producing waves at 29 metres tall... based on the amount of oil intended to travel through the proposed pipeline route, it is predicted that there would be an oil spill of over 1,000 barrels about every five years, and a catastrophic spill of over 10,000 barrels every 12 years. Today, a 15 per cent oil spill recovery is considered a success."

Let's look at tanker traffic, including the boast by shipping companies that double-hulled tankers negate the possibility of a serious oil spill.

This courtesy of the Living Oceans Society: "Double-hulled tankers offer the best protection when a collision or grounding occurs at slow speeds, but double hulls do present challenges as they are still a relatively new technology and are more susceptible to problems of poor maintenance and operation. For instance, double hulls may result in increased corrosion between the hulls and a top heaviness that makes the vessel less stable in rough conditions."

What will happen after a spill?

The most remembered oil spill on our coast was the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

This calamity, near where Kitimat tankers will sail, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 was estimated to have resulted in the death of 2,800 sea otters, 250,000 birds, 1.9 million salmon, and 12.9 million herring. Just one spill, of which much evidence remains today, 22 years later!

No adequate oil spill response in place

In 1990, a federal public review on tanker safety in Canadian waters determined that based on the current levels of tanker traffic, Canada could expect 100 small, 10 moderate, and at least one major oil spill every year. A catastrophic spill -- for which Canada was considered "wholly unprepared" -- could be expected once every 15 years.

Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development determined that Canada's plan for oil spill preparedness and response still does not adequately establish national preparedness capacity. The 2010 commissioner's report noted the lack of any preparedness and response regime for ship-source chemical spills.

According to a drift analysis study, a vessel adrift off Haida Gwaii in severe weather would have to be 216 nautical miles offshore to ensure its rescue before drifting aground. The current Tanker Exclusion Zone falls far short of this requirement.

Here's what Andrew Nikiforuk says about probabilities of spills in his blockbuster Tar Sands, Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. According to Environment Canada, "these tankers would expose B.C. waters to average spills of 1,000 barrels every four years and ten thousand barrels every nine years."

Is it possible that this terrible scenario can become a reality?

You bet. According to a recent article in the Sept. 11, 2011 edition of the Houston Chronicle: "U.S. and Canadian companies have dominated Alberta's oil sands for decades. Now, though, Chinese firms are rushing to snap up Canadian oil sands resources and invest in ongoing projects -- to the tune of $15 billion in the past 18 months in Alberta alone."

We have, then, the federal government in favour, pending an environmental assessment that will certainly be ignored if not favourable, a compliant provincial government and the second biggest financial power in the world financing much of the venture. Moreover, if the U.S. eventually does pass the Canada Keystone project taking the tar sands gunk to Houston, they can be counted upon to support China. Given their fiscal relationship, the U.S. has no other choice.

Here we are supposed to be fighting global warming and weaning ourselves off fossil fuels as we help the worst polluter on the planet, the tar sands, expand their business by exporting their product through the most sensitive environment on the globe, thence down our coast -- the most beautiful and dangerous coastline in the world!

The Vancouver connection

There is one hell of a big problem on the horizon related to yet another pipeline, the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which already is taking a huge quantity of tar sands gunk to Vancouver's harbour. From there, it is shipped through our waters to China either directly or after it's refined in Houston, Texas.

How so?

Let's look at pipelines and ocean spills, and what the statistics tell us:

According to an article by Mitchell Anderson published in The Tyee on June 2, a quiet application to the National Energy Board (NEB) may soon vastly expand oil tanker traffic through the waters of Burrard Inlet, making Vancouver the major conduit of oils sands crude and bitumen to China.

Trans Mountain Pipeline, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan that operates the 300,000 barrel per day (bpd) pipeline from Alberta to B.C. and Washington State, has applied to the NEB to enter into long-term buying contracts called "firm service."

They are also requesting to divert more Alberta crude and bitumen capacity to the Westbridge tanker terminal in Burrard Inlet and away from existing land-based refineries in B.C. and Washington.

The threat of this increased traffic (the present traffic is dangerous enough) is immense.

Rex Weyler, a cofounder of Greenpeace, says the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion "would mean that its capacity would increase from 300,000 barrels a day to 700,000 barrels a day," which would mean the "death of the inlet would be inevitable." (Remember that an oil spill is inevitable!)

If, for sake of argument, let's say that Enbridge decides not to use the Northern Gateway pipeline, and the Kinder Morgan pipeline was expanded accordingly. The daily flow into Vancouver's harbour would be an extra 525,000 bbl per day!

Are we gambling with anything at stake here, or are we only playing for matchsticks?

The answer is clear that we will have oil leaks in pipelines and tankers. Enbridge doesn't deny this, but writes confidently in an offhanded way about how they will handle these leaks. (See their webpage.)

What, then, are we looking at here?

In a nutshell, we have two new pipelines crossing 1,170 km of virgin wilderness. This raises the obvious questions: How long will it take for a response team to get to where the spill occurs? How will they manage a clean-up? Why would we believe the clean-up would happen in time to prevent any massive damage, given that the spill from an Enbridge pipeline into the Kalamazoo River, in a highly developed area, is still not cleaned up 16 months later, and never will be? What then will the damage be here in British Columbia? One must assume that sometime, the spill will get into one or more of the three major salmon rivers.

Silently slipping under the radar is the increase in size, capacity and delivery from the tar sands to Vancouver through the Kinder Morgan pipeline(s).

Again, the threat there is a certainty, and an ongoing one.

We can stop this

Let me ask this of well-meaning people who think that the risk is slight, whether it's from a pipeline or tanker. Where is the value to B.C. in these immense transportation undertakings?

If we're to take the unchallenged dicta from experts in this field, the spills are certain. How then can you justify putting our wilderness and coast to certain destruction, remembering that the companies admit that these spills will happen? And do it to help the tar sands continue the largest environment despoiler in the world to produce fossil fuels in great abundance!

Can we stop it?

Only if we are prepared to go the distance. There will be threats to meet from the federal government and courts, and there will be bribes offered. The threats will be brute force, you can bank on that.

I believe that the mass of B.C.'s population wants nothing to do with these projects and will happily use civil disobedience to enforce their views.

Before finishing, let's remember that any who are guilty of civil disobedience must be prepared to accept the consequences. Having said that, we must rally in huge numbers. We must be prepared to lie down in the path of machinery and when the expected injunction is achieved, we must be prepared to go to jail. In fact, if enough of us do this, there won't be enough jail cells to hold us.

Given the fatal environmental damage these international corporations will inflict, we surely must spare no opportunity to fight these pipelines and tankers with everything we can, short of violence.

[Tags: Energy, Environment.]  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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