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.

Crosscut archive image.

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.)

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.

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.

Researchers are still assessing the environmental impact but the bill has already reached $700 million. "Not many people in the pipeline industry would have thought that a 20,000-barrel spill would be costing $700 million," says policy analyst Nathan Lemphers of Canada's Pembina Institute. The bitumen is "heavier than water, so it sinks after several days," he says. It also has a considerable heavy metal content. He worries about what would happen if it spilled in the deep, often rough water off the B.C. coast. "Even if it were to be conventional oil," he says, "a lot of [clean-up] technologies only work on calm water."

The company doesn't explain the Kalamazoo River spill away. Indeed, pending the results of the current research, the company doesn't explain it at all. "We have done everything that we can to learn everything that we can" from the incident, Nogier says. "It is an incident that is very humbling to this company."

Even if there were to be no major oil spill in the Northwest, critics worry about the ways in which the sound of many large ships might affect killer whales and other cetaceans.

"Killer whales (Orcinus orca) use sound for echolocation, social communication, and passive listening," explains a report done for NOAA in 2008. "Ambient noise, including that from natural and anthropogenic sources, has the potential to interfere with the reception and use of these important biological sounds. Significant sources of anthropogenic sounds that contribute to ambient background noise in critical habitats of SRKWs [southern resident killer whales] include sonar, acoustic harassment devices, vessel traffic, and construction noise." The Living Oceans Society's Terhune says, "There's a worry that these whale populations might leave."

But not everyone is convinced that bringing hundreds of big tankers into coastal waters would cause major problems. Indeed, the TERMPOL report — issued Feb. 23 by, among others, Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada — found that it would not. The report cited the company's plans to require any ballasted tanker to be accompanied by a close escort tug, any laden tanker in a channel to be accompanied by two tugs, and a "requirement for tankers to modify their speed to reduce harm to marine mammals." (Ships hit whales. Why don't the whales stay out of the way? No one knows. But "whale strikes" happen.)

This report hardly gives Enbridge a green light, but it may make a green light more likely. "Though the review was voluntary," wrote Nathan Vanderklippe in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "it bears the imprimatur of the federal government, which is likely to carry substantial heft with the three-person Joint Review Panel examining the project. From that perspective, it is an important vote of confidence for Enbridge, which has long argued that it can safely move oil across the B.C. coast."

Critics argue that in any case, the risks of the pipeline and tankers aren't worth the rewards. The "Northern Gateway pipeline is not worth the risk for the communities, rivers and Pacific coastline of British Columbia," said Nathan Lemphers in a press release accompanying a November report on "Pipeline and Tanker Trouble." Economically, "there's very little economic gain for British Columbians," Terhune argues. "B.C. is just the doormat."

An oil port on the B.C. coast isn't a new idea. It was floated and rejected back in the 1970s. Back then, the port would have been at Kitimat, too. A lot of Canadians objected. Tankers were never legally banned. An official moratorium was placed on offshore oil production, but evidently not on transportation. Nevertheless, there seems to be "some misinformation out there that there is some kind of tanker ban or moratorium," Nogier says. While polling shows that most people in British Columbia support a tanker ban, he says that the "wording of the question is predicated [on the assumption] that there [already] is a ban."

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.

Lemphers' Pembina Institute and other groups argue that national and provincial governments should officially keep the big ships out. The Pipeline and Tanker Trouble report, issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as the Pembina Institute and Living Oceans Society (both Lemphers and Terhune were authors), concluded that Canada should:

legislate a permanent large oil tanker ban in accordance with the Coastal First Nations tanker ban and the Save the Fraser Declaration. While additional measures must be taken to make tankers and pipelines as safe as possible, the value of some areas is too high to risk any accidents. The Great Bear Rainforest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, and the sensitive coastal waters and ecosystems surrounding it, should be permanently preserved and protected from the threat of oil spills.

In addition, it says, "The government of British Columbia can and should show leadership to stop crude oil tanker developments from proceeding, as desired by 80 percent of British Columbians."

When the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Texas coast, ran into political obstacles last year, and especially after the Obama administration rejected it in January, some people said that if the tar sands oil couldn't go to the U.S., it would go to China. There was an implied link between the Keystone controversy and the plans for Northern Gateway. "When President Obama rejected the Keystone oil sands pipeline expansion last week, critics immediately sounded the China alarm," Steve Hargreaves reported in January for CNN Money. Echoing statements also heard from Democratic supporters of the pipeline, House Speaker John Boehner said, 'If we don't build this pipeline ... that oil is going to get shipped out to the Pacific Ocean and will be sold to the Chinese."

Indeed, if tar sands oil doesn't go to the U.S., it may well go to China. And if oil eventually does flow through an expanded Keystone pipeline to the U.S.? It may just go to China — or other foreign markets — from two ports, instead of one. There is every reason to believe that if tar sands oil reaches the Texas Gulf coast, at least some of it will be exported.

Recently, some Democratic congressmen introduced a bill that would ban exports if a Keystone line is ever built. Without such legal impediments, once oil — or dilute bitumen — reaches a coast, it can be loaded onto tankers. And once it's loaded onto tankers, it can go any place in the world. The oil from Northern Gateway might very well go to China. But some of it could go to California. Or to Puget Sound. Or someplace else.

Given the expected increase in demand in Pacific Rim countries, Nogier says, it seems reasonable to assume that most of the oil will go there. However, he says, "The market will dictate where the oil ultimately gets sent."

There really is no direct connection between the Keystone pipeline and the Kitimat proposal, he says. "They're completely independent projects," proposed by "two separate competitive companies." However, he suggests that "one thing" linking the two projects — and this "has been said, particularly by the Prime Minister" — is that "the Keystone situation does underline the necessity for Canadian producers to find alternate markets." If the U.S. approves Keystone, as a lot of people think it should and eventually will do, that approval won't make Northern Gateway go away. (TransCanada, the company that wanted to expand the Keystone pipeline, has just announced it will resubmit its permit application.)

This isn't primarily about American politics or international snits; it's about money. Canada's tar sands oil industry is huge and getting huger. Right now, the only foreign customer for that oil is the United States. Canada wants to diversify its options. To do that, it must get the oil to a coast, any coast.

This coast happens to have some advantages. Northwestern ports have long boasted that they lie on the shortest shipping routes to Asia. Indeed, they do. As the Asian markets blossom, that makes them the logical points from which to ship fossil fuels to the Far East: bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta; coal from the mines of Wyoming and Montana; liquified natural gas. And, of course, there are plans afoot to ship all of the above.

Those big tankers bound to and from Kitimat would have plenty of company. Permits are already in place for a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal at Kitimat, and there is interest in other LNG terminals along the B.C. coast. The port of Coos Bay, Ore., wants to export both LNG and coal. Other potential coal ports include Bellingham — which has water deep enough to handle big "Capesize" vessels that won't fit through the Suez or Panama Canal — Longview, Grays Harbor, and St. Helens, Ore. Kinder-Morgan, which already pumps tar sands bitumen to a port at Burnaby, B.C., wants to double its pipeline capacity, which would enable it to send another 70 or so loaded tankers per year through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

It's hard to believe that all of these plans will reach fruition. But Alberta has oil reserves estimated at 171 billion barrels. "Total GDP impact of [future] oil sands investment and operations over a 25-year period [from 2010 to 2035] is estimated to be $2,106 billion for Canada, and $521 billion for the US," according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute. "Employment in Canada (direct, indirect, induced) as a result of new oil sands investments is expected to grow from 75,000 jobs in 2010 to 905,000 jobs in 2035."

With numbers like those, don't expect the pressure for new oil ports to go away.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.