Oil tankers are nothing new on our coast, but recent federal — and now provincial — approval of the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline could more than triple the traffic. Is it a risk we’re ready or willing to take?
Just about any day, from the porch of his home on Metchosin’s Taylor Beach, Garry Fletcher can gaze out across Juan de Fuca Strait and see oil tankers. “I look right out on the passage where all those ships are going to go by,” Fletcher says, referring to an anticipated doubling of tankers on the strait should the controversial twinning of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline go ahead as planned.
Already on a typical day, at least one or two oil tankers sail by Victoria, most of them carrying crude from Alaska to refineries in Washington State. One Sunday in November, the vessel-tracking website marinetraffic.com displayed nine oil/chemical tankers between Port Angeles and Cherry Point, Wash. They included the Alaskan Legend and the Alaskan Explorer — each of them nine-tenths the size and capacity of the Exxon Valdez.
Meanwhile, a few Aframax tankers, up to five each month, also carry crude oil from Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Marine Terminal on Port Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, most of it destined for refineries in California, according to a Trans Mountain media-relations rep. Of late, that has dropped to about one or two tankers a month, says Captain Robin Stewart, vice-president of B.C. Coast Pilots.
In December 2016, the federal government gave approval for the Trans Mountain pipeline to proceed. This January, the provincial government granted Trans Mountain an environmental certificate. The project is sure to run into opposition from environmentalists, municipalities and First Nations on the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
But opposition even in this part of the world isn’t unanimous. As the Times Colonist reported in December 2016, nine Vancouver Island First Nations have signed mutual-benefit agreements with Trans Mountain.
And as this went to press, Kinder Morgan had yet to make a final investment decision on the pipeline.
Risk and Reason
Should the project proceed as expected, up to 890,000 barrels of petroleum products will arrive at the Burnaby facility each day compared with 390,000 barrels at present.
Those plans also call for up to 29 additional Aframax tankers to leave the Westbridge terminal each month. Each ship would carry diluted or synthetic bitumen to China and other Asian destinations. The new pipeline has the capacity, at least, to about double the volume of crude oil currently carried through the Salish Sea.
These Aframax tankers have only about half the capacity of very large crude carriers, or VLCCs like the Alaskan Explorer and the Exxon Valdez. But each one can leave Burnaby with up to 750,000 barrels of product. That’s about three times as much as the estimated 260,000 barrels that spilled from the Valdez when it ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989.
“They really have to deal with the issue of the ones that are there now because it’s not adequately protected right now,” Fletcher says of the existing tanker traffic.
As the long-time education director for the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, and as director of the Friends of Ecological Reserves, Fletcher is greatly worried about the devastating effects an oil spill would have on southern Vancouver Island’s sensitive ecosystems.
“It’s hard to say what would be permanent,” Fletcher says of the potential damage. “Much of the research says if oil ends up on a rocky shore with high exposure, it’ll take a matter of years to clean up. That’s questionable in terms of the different groups of organisms that are going to be affected.”
Captain Eric Klapperich, secretary-treasurer of Puget Sound Pilots, notes that an oil tanker from Alaska will often call at more than one Washington refinery before heading to California to discharge the remainder. In fact, Klapperich piloted the Alaskan Explorer in early November from BP’s Cherry Point refinery to Shell Oil’s refinery at Anacortes, with an anchorage stop in between.
U.S. tankers also occasionally travel along Haro Strait on the Canada-U.S. boundary. Sometimes that’s to avoid meeting another tanker on the shipping lane through Rosario Strait, Klapperich says.
“We have places that we don’t meet,” he says. “Either a guy will have to wait if he’s early, or if another guy’s late he will have to hold up.”
The Haro Strait traffic is within a few nautical miles of where Sidney crab fisherman Kelvin Campbell and the crewmen on his two boats set their traps.
“Oh, with the currents here, [a spill] would wipe us out,” says Campbell, who has fished the area since the 1980s. “Juvenile crab, and all other kinds of species like that, when they’re first growing, they’re all in the shallows and the eelgrass. And that’s eventually where your oil would end up.”
At the Center for Whale Research on the west side of San Juan Island, research director Dr. Deborah Giles can look out at Haro Strait and see tankers passing by. Not a day passes that she doesn’t think about the impact of ship traffic on the orcas she studies.
“Even in the best-case scenario it’s a terrible situation,” Dr. Giles says. “It would potentially be to the detriment of this entire population of the southern resident fish eaters, of which there are only 80.”
More than 400,000 people go out on whale-watch boats in the Puget Sound region each year, Giles points out. A spill would wipe out that industry, she says.
Jeff Friedman, president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, says his organization, which represents 38 whale-watch companies in B.C. and Washington State, commissioned a study in 2014 that concluded whale watching contributes US$150 million annually to the region’s economy.
“That’s not just whale-watching revenue. That’s for hotels, restaurants and economic impact,” says Friedman, who owns Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, based on San Juan Island.
What are the Odds?
Just how likely is a spill? A 2014 report by WSP Canada Inc. and SL Ross Environmental Research Limited calculated that a spill of at least 10,000 cubic metres — 63,000 barrels or more — would occur in Canadian waters every 243.2 years. That is a much more modest estimate than SL Ross made in a report for the Canadian Coast Guard in 1999. That report estimated that a spill of 100,000 barrels or greater would happen every 16 years in Canadian waters, and a 200,000-barrel spill every 86 years.
The difference in the two estimates reflects a reduction in the frequency of large spills in recent years. In the decade leading up to the 1999 report, there were “nine exceptionally large spills,” including the Exxon Valdez. In contrast, the 2014 WSP/SL Ross study notes that only two spills of 10,000 cubic metres or more occurred in the entire world from 2003 to 2012, and no crude oil spills of any size in Canadian waters. But the report also notes that B.C.’s south coast, including Vancouver Island, is one of two zones in Canada where the potential impact from an oil spill is greatest.
Kevin Obermeyer — CEO of the Pacific Pilotage Authority, a federal Crown corporation — says the tankers currently sailing from Vancouver differ from the Exxon Valdez in three key ways: they have local pilots aboard; they are escorted by tugs; and the tankers are double-hulled. Yet despite these measures, and the great confidence he has in the coast pilots the authority regulates, Obermeyer isn’t about to claim that the risk of spills has been eliminated.
“You can never say never and I would never say that because as many levels of safety you put in place, there is always this slight chance that something will slip through,” Obermeyer says.
Dealing with the additional oil volumes would mean training more pilots to add to the 111 who already belong to the B.C. Coast Pilots Ltd., the pilots’ own company that contracts their services to the pilotage authority. Obermeyer says eight to 12 new pilots are being trained each year in anticipation of not just Kinder Morgan’s but also other projects such as several liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects that might or might not materialize.
Western Canada Marine Response Corporation is also poised to ramp up its presence on the coast, says communications manager Michael Lowry. The corporation, which is funded by industry, has received a $200-million commitment — $150 million from Kinder Morgan — to increase its spill-response capabilities. That includes adding 115 personnel to its current staff of 65 and opening new bases at Nanaimo, Sidney, Becher Bay, Port Alberni, and Ucluelet, as well as stationing an ocean-supply vessel near Victoria.
The corporation already has a warehouse in Duncan and equipment such as containment booms across the Island, including three of its 33 vessels stationed in Victoria harbour. Despite all that firepower, spill response is “not a magic bullet,” Lowry admits.
“Really, the key here is prevention,” Lowry says. “That’s what’s going to help people have some assurance in the tourism industry and other areas.”
Stormy weather, for example, can hamper efforts to contain a spill. That was most evident last October when the diesel tug barge the Nathan E. Stewart sank near Bella Bella, spilling about 100,000 litres of diesel fuel and other petroleum products.
“That’s a good example of weather impacting an incident,” Lowry says. “But it’s also a good example of how much can come into play when there is a situation. There were a lot of assets up there.”
A Lengthy List of Concerns
From his vantage point in Metchosin, where he often sees 50-knot winds blow by, Garry Fletcher is far from convinced that a double hull will do any good if a tanker loses control. But captains Stewart and Klapperich say the pilots are trained for any weather. Klapperich points out that about every two years, pilots train on a loaded tanker that loses power in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“You are trained to correct that and fix that in a quick amount of time,” Klapperich says. “It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a tugboat that’s tethered (to a tanker).”
The tanker pilotage procedures are similar for both Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions, with requirements for escort tugs and tethering of the tugs to the ships in certain passages. One key difference, however, is that the U.S. rules only require one pilot on a tanker whereas Canadian regulations now require two.
Leading the charge against oil tankers on this coast is the Dogwood Initiative. The Victoria-based non-profit advocacy organization has a lengthy list of concerns. Among them is that the new tankers will carry diluted bitumen, which environmental groups consider to be a particularly nasty petroleum product that sinks in water. (That’s a subject of some dispute. Lowry says his organization cleaned a spill of synthetic bitumen, a slightly different product, from Burrard Inlet in 2007 and it didn’t sink.)
Aside from the environmental risks, however, the pipeline expansion and the tankers it will bring make no economic sense in a world awash with cheap oil, says Kai Nagata, the Dogwood Initiative’s communication director.
“The project was proposed and the arguments built around an environment, a high-price environment, which currently does not exist,” Nagata says. “So that’s why you would lose money if you were to load a tanker right now and try to sell that product, that heavy crude stock, in the Asian market.”
But Geoff Morrison, operations manager at the Victoria office of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), is sticking to the position that the new pipeline and tankers will provide market access and a higher price, which are priorities for CAPP members. The economic benefits from that will flow to all Canadians, and not just Albertans, he adds. “There’s actually over 600 companies in B.C. that supply goods and services directly to the oil sands.”
Such arguments don’t sway Campbell. “Am I as a fisherman gaining something out of this, or is it just a 100 per cent risk to me? Because I only see it as a 100 per cent risk.”
The risk from existing tankers is already substantial, Nagata says. And it isn’t reduced just because a major oil spill hasn’t ever occurred in the Salish Sea. (A Trans Mountain spokesperson says by email that the company has “safely loaded marine vessels with petroleum products since 1956 without a single spill from a tanker.” It didn’t mention that 2007 spill that occurred on land, however.)
“The argument that we’ve been lucky so far is not an argument to ‘let’s increase the risk,’” Nagata says.
His fears and those of other tanker opponents weren’t assuaged at all by the federal government’s announcement in November of a $1.5-billion oceans protection plan. Among the protection plan’s promised initiatives are “to strengthen the polluter-pay principle” by ensuring “adequate industry-funded” compensation.
“But what if the polluter goes bankrupt?” Fletcher asks as he looks from his porch across to Constance Bank at a Hanjin container ship that was then stranded there after the South Korean company went bankrupt. Kinder Morgan makes it clear that any such spill is the responsibility of the ship owner, not the pipeline operator.
As for Fletcher, should a spill mar his beach, he’s not sticking around to be overcome by toxic fumes. He will head inland.