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Why a new invasion of tankers threatens Northwest waters

There's all that oil from Alberta's tar sands, and coal in Wyoming and Montana. All of it is yearning to burn free, but not for free, in Asia, or wherever else top dollar will be paid.

Crude oil tankers like this may become a lot more common along the Pacific Northwest.

Crude oil tankers like this may become a lot more common along the Pacific Northwest. Ting Chen/Flickr (CC)

The Port of Kitimat (marked "A") in British Columbia could become a key spot for connecting Alberta's tar sands fields with refinery capacity. (Click to enlarge.)

The Port of Kitimat (marked "A") in British Columbia could become a key spot for connecting Alberta's tar sands fields with refinery capacity. (Click to enlarge.) Google Maps

A few years from now, when our best-known marine life — endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon, or the Fraser River sockeye that have always made up the bulk of the Puget Sound commercial harvest — swim north to the Queen Charlotte Islands and beyond, they may encounter some new swimming companions: 1000-foot-long tankers known as Very Large Crude Carriers.  Each ship would be carrying up to 2 million barrels of dilute bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to foreign refineries, probably in China.

Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Ltd. wants to build twin 730-mile pipelines from Alberta to a new oil port at Kitimat, B.C. One pipeline would take some 30 million tons of dilute bitumen a year to the coast. The other would carry inland the condensate used to dilute the bitumen.

Up to 250 chartered foreign-flag tankers a year would haul the bitumen away. If a tanker were bound for Asia, it would negotiate Dixon Entrance, between B.C. and southeast Alaska. If it were instead bound for California and its refinery capacity, it might head south, reaching the open ocean through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The recent "Northern Gateway Project TERMPOL Review Process Report" by three Canadian government ministries, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Pacific Pilotage Authority explains that "[o]f these 250 vessels, up to 60 would have a deadweight of 320,000 tonnes. While there are currently large commercial vessels operating to and from Kitimat Harbour, the oil tankers used for the Northern Gateway Project would be larger."

The Northern Gateway project "would introduce some of the world's largest supertankers in an area that has never seen oil," says Katie Terhune, energy campaign manager of the Living Oceans Society. "No other tanker routes in the world are nearly this challenging." The big ships — which require several miles to stop — would "have to make five nearly 90-degree turns, [and] the channel's narrow."

Enbridge spokesperson Todd Nogier says that the waters of the B.C. coast aren't that different from those of Scotland or Norway, where the offshore oil industry has been operating for years. All else being equal, the more large vessels share space along the rocky B.C. coast, the greater the risk of something bad happening there. But, Nogier says, although the Northern Gateway project would increase vessel traffic through those waters — where much smaller ships already haul condensate to Kitimat — the company would install radar and other navigational aids that would make the waters safer for everyone.

Many environmental groups on both sides of the border would like to see the whole Alberta tar sands enterprise shut down. Tar sands development is eating into the boreal forest. Processing the bitumen requires huge amounts of water and energy. Putting billions of barrels of new petroleum onto the market just renews our commitment to the fossil-fuel-based energy system that helps drive global climate change.

But critics also raise specific objections to the Northern Gateway proposal. A lot of environmental groups and First Nations communities point to the environmental risks of both pipelines and tankers.

Number one, of course is the risk of a spill from the pipeline, which will cross two major tributaries of the Fraser, or from one of the ships, which will pass through the ocean migration routes of salmon from all the major B.C. coastal rivers, as well as Puget Sound, and pass through Alaskan waters, too. (The 320,000-deadweight-ton tankers occupy the upper limit of Very Large Crude Carriers, although they're smaller than Ultra Large Crude Carriers. By comarison, the ill-fated Exxon Valdez occupied the bottom of the VLCC range at a tad over 200,000 deadweight tons and a capacity a tad less than 1.5 million barrels.)

Critics cite the 2010 spill of dilute bitumen from a 30-inch Enbridge pipeline into a tributary of Michigan's Kalamazoo River as a cautionary tale. That spill dumped 819,000 gallons — or roughly 20,000 barrels — into the water. The oil spread downstream and out into the floodplain. The bitumen quickly sank. Crews are still cleaning it up.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 6, 12:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Hi, Dan--

Thanks for an informative article. Unfortunately, there was a glaring omission: over the last several years, the number of tar sands tankers ALREADY traveling Haro Strait (the west side of the San Juans) annually has increased from a few dozen to over 100 per year. These tankers are receiving diluted bitumen from the outlet of Kinder-Morgan's TransMountain pipeline from Alberta to Burrard Inlet in Vancouver.

Current capacity for that pipeline is 300,000 barrels a day. A proposal on the book to twin that pipeline would result in capacity of 700,000 barrels a day, meaning the possibility of tripling the extant tanker traffic. http://www.kindermorgan.com/investor/presentations/2011_Analysts_Conf_05_KM_Canada.pdf

Thanks again for covering this critical issue.

Matt Krogh, North Sound Baykeeper

Matt_K

Posted Tue, Mar 6, 5:50 p.m. Inappropriate

"In any case, Lemphers argues, "There's been a de facto tanker ban in place since the 1970s." He concedes that this has been a matter of policy, rather than law, but he notes that in Canada's last federal election, four of the five main parties — not including the party currently in power — supported a tanker ban."

That paragraph means?

afreeman

Posted Tue, Mar 6, 7:13 p.m. Inappropriate

The Alberta shale should be in its initial or further stage restoration process studies. Consult them and their proponents. Restoration studies should be ongoing. As to when an expected planned return of topsoil and control of toxic tailings studies are due, is anybody else's guess.
Protect river water from runoff and ground amelioration.
A reduction of oil production is warranted on these rounds.
The darkest of crude should be used only as a last resort.
Or, your electric car could power your apartment,
Or single-family garages/with attached houses.
Off to the Mega-lo Mart mega-lomania...

Wells

Posted Mon, Mar 12, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Dan - 2 points:

1) no way are VLCC's or ULCC's heading from Kitimat to California via Juan de Fuca as you suggest in the 3rd paragraph. They would head along the outer coast. However, as Mat mentioned in a previous comment, smaller tankers are already exporting tar sands out of Vancouver via Juan de Fuca. This issue is what needs greater attention for local readers.

2) The Canadian Tanker Ban was established to keep tankers carrying oil from AK to WA from approaching the shores of Vancouver Island despite my northern colleagues assertions otherwise.

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