British Columbians are becoming more aware of two major oil pipeline proposals -- Enbridge's Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline. These pipelines have been advanced by the government of Canada on behalf of large, multinational oil companies as well as the Chinese government's mega national oil companies, Sinopec, PetroChina and China National Offshore Oil Company.
These are huge companies with a huge appetite for getting crude oil to Asia as quickly as possible. To make sure the pipelines go ahead, the Harper government has introduced a new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act allowing cabinet to overrule a National Energy Board no-go decision on both the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's proposals. The new federal rules speed up the process and limit the participation of many individuals and organizations in public hearings.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper may need to do more than rush these projects through under cover of legislative shelter. Particularly when British Columbians learn the true magnitude of what these projects mean for tanker traffic.
So far, Kinder Morgan has told us their twinned pipeline proposal would expand capacity from 300,000 barrels per day and 71 tankers a year to 850,000 barrels per day and more than five times the tankers.
That's an oil tanker a day transiting Burrard Inlet.
We've also been told that Enbridge's Northern Gateway project represents 525,000 barrels a day of crude oil flowing along the pipeline into Kitimat, and 193,000 barrels a day of condensate flowing along a pipeline in the other direction, out of Kitimat. Every year, 220 tankers will navigate the difficult and vulnerable Douglas Channel in order to pick up raw crude and drop off toxic condensate.
What most people don't know is Northern Gateway has been designed to carry 60 per cent more crude oil and 40 per cent more condensate -- all that's required is an increase in pumping power along the pipeline route.
Buried details of expansion 'scenarios'
Detailed designs with four upgrading phases have been submitted by Enbridge to the National Energy Board. What this means is 850,000 barrels per day of crude oil and 275,000 barrels a day of condensate can readily be accommodated by the Northern Gateway project.
And the supertankers needed to transport it?
Well, its not 220, but closer to 340 -- almost an oil tanker a day in B.C.'s northern coastal waters.
More crude, more condensate, more tankers, more risk -- way more risk.
Hidden in the thousands of pages of evidence filed with the National Energy Board is Enbridge's intended capacity expansion plan. It's imbedded in an answer to a National Energy Board Joint Review Panel question requesting "a detailed description of the potential expansion scenarios which could be possible by adding additional pump stations and pumping facilities."
Enbridge notes in their documents that "these expansion scenarios and associated facilities are not part of the applied for project... any future expansion scenarios and associated facilities beyond the applied for project would be the subject of future regulatory application."
But there is no mandatory hearing requirement for modifications to existing pipeline systems. The legislation is very clear on this, as are NEB publications. "Hearings are not required for additions to existing systems."
Fast tracked upgrades: the Kinder Morgan precedent
Even when there is a mandatory requirement to conduct a full review, the NEB has been known to waive the environmental assessment in favour of a screening. This is why Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline did not have to go through a comprehensive NEB hearing in 2006 when 150 kilometres of new pipeline construction was undertaken and capacity throughput was increased 30 per cent from 225,000 barrels per day to 300,000 barrels per day.
Diversion of crude oil from local refineries to off-shore markets requires NEB approval. Kinder Morgan has requested an increase in its marine export allocation a number of times, as its capacity has expanded. None have been accompanied by an environmental assessment of the marine traffic spill risk associated with increased tanker traffic.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and other B.C. mayors have requested the NEB to undertake proper environmental assessment and hold hearings in Vancouver and local coastal communities because of increased risk of marine oil spills. The NEB refused to do so, electing to hold one-day hearings in Calgary. The result: an increase in crude oil tanker traffic from 22 ships in 2005 to 71 by 2010 -- all without any environmental assessment.
Vastly more oil to be transported, raising risk
Northern Gateway, coupled with a twinned Kinder Morgan means the federal government has effectively given Big Oil the go-ahead for 1.7 million barrels per day of crude oil flowing through B.C.
Once Kinder Morgan tables its detailed pipeline plans, it's possible we'll find their design capable of carrying much more crude -- just like Northern Gateway -- and 1.1 million barrels per day will be arriving in Burnaby ready to be shipped to Asian markets. With both Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan, this could mean almost two million barrels a day of crude oil flowing through B.C.
Many people in the Lower Mainland are used to seeing ships in English Bay, but their numbers will be dwarfed by crude oil supertankers known as Aframax, and if Burrard Inlet is dredged, Suezmax.*
Given the federal government's penchant for underwriting oil industry expansion plans, there could be more than 800 crude oil tankers a year traversing our coast line -- a little more than half of them dropping anchor off Spanish Banks while the rest struggle to navigate the inside straight.
Any insurance underwriter will tell you accident frequency increases with density. More than two crude oil tankers a day is very dense.
Unfortunately, that's not all that's dense.
*Correction: Feb 26, 2013.