Minimal spill risk from proposed pipeline: Enbridge. But 'gaps remain' in federal rules designed to curtail damage in case of a major oil leak, experts say
- Minimal spill risk from proposed pipeline: Enbridge
But 'gaps remain' in federal rules designed to curtail damage in case of a major oil leak, experts say
By Scott Simpson, Vancouver Sun
June 5, 2010
A digram of a double-hulled oil tanker similar to the type that would transport oil from Kitimat, the terminus of Enbridge's proposed pipeline carrying crude oil from Alberta to refineries in Asia.
Photograph by: Handout, Enbridge
See also: Massive tankers, crude oil and pristine waters: Can the unthinkable be prevented?
- - -
There is only a remote chance that British Columbia north coast waters would suffer a major spill from new oil tanker traffic, according to proponents of the Northern Gateway pipeline project.
Enbridge Inc. says in a recent filing to federal regulators that the odds of a major spill - at least 40,000 cubic metres of oil, or half the daily output from a proposed oil shipping terminal at Kitimat - is once in 1,500 years near the terminal.
That extends to once in 15,000 years when tankers reach the relative open waters of Hecate Strait, between Haida Gwaii and the B.C. mainland.
The calculations are derived from a Transport Canada formula designed to measure spill risks, filtered through worldwide tanker data and factoring in local vessel movement, average wind and current speed, plus marine traffic conditions in the areas where oil tankers would travel after filling up in Kitimat.
Northern Gateway involves a 1,172 kilometre pipeline carrying Alberta crude oil from facilities near Edmonton to Kitimat, at the head of Douglas Channel on the B.C. coast, as well as a shipping terminal that will feed international-class double-hulled oil tankers destined for refineries in Asia.
A smaller secondary pipeline will move a natural gas product called condensate from Kitimat to Edmonton for use in the processing of crude from Alberta's oilsands. Condensate evaporates and is considered to be substantially less of a risk to the coastline.
"Preliminary findings suggest that the overall risk is comparable to other marine tanker and terminal operations with similar meteorological, oceanographic and physical conditions [areas with fiords, fog and wind]," says Enbridge in one of a series of three marine transportation studies recently filed to the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Authority.
The studies are part of Enbridge's application for the $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline and oil tanker terminal project.
The company states that oil and liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers on average have fewer accidents than other bulk material carriers and that, internationally, the average number of spills from oil and LNG tankers has fallen to 17 per year from an average of 79 per year in the 1970s.
However, Enbridge states that "incidents in the study area are so infrequent that no statistical conclusion on the historic and future trend in incidents can be made," without extrapolating from the numbers available from other tanker traffic areas around the world.
According to Enbridge spokesman Alan Roth, "facilities similar to the proposed Kitimat marine terminal operate safely off the coasts of Norway and Sweden in very similar geographical conditions."
Enbridge's filings take note of a patchwork of environmentally sensitive areas that, together, encompass virtually the entire north coast route along which the tankers would travel.
"Enbridge is very aware of the coastal ecosystems along the shipping routes and as part of project planning our team of more than 200 environmental experts and scientists have been analyzing the proposed route and the marine environment," Roth said in an e-mail. "Northern Gateway is committed to implementing the highest worldwide safety standards for this project."
The company is promising state of the art technology and infrastructure in support of tanker movement through the narrow fiords and passages between Kitimat and the open coast.
It is also dismissing comparisons, coming from several environmental groups, between its proposal and the BP oil pipeline disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
"If Enbridge believed that it was not possible to transport petroleum products safely whether over land or water, we would not have proposed the project," Roth said.
Stafford Reid, a member of a committee that advises the federal government on issues involving oil spill response efficiency on the Pacific Coast, said the B.C. coastal shipping industry has a good track record.
That includes a half-century's worth of bulk oil shipments from a terminal in Burnaby, now owned by Texas-based private company Kinder Morgan.
However, after 20 years running a company that consults on marine spills of hazardous material, Reid said Canadian federal standards are not high enough to minimize risks - or impacts in the event of an actual spill.
"I'm saying that those standards are so low, that it could actually work against them," Reid said in a phone interview.
He said the West Coast oil spill response system, operated out of Burrard Inlet by Burrard Clean on behalf of oil shipping companies and other fuel carriers, is good.
But Reid added that the federal standards with which they comply "are very, very lean when it comes to shoreline cleanup, oil waste management, wildlife response."
"The standards were written in 1995. They are now being repackaged for administrative reasons and pushed as new environmental response standards - and they haven't changed."
Reid said "gaps remain."
For example, a system that captures and recovers oil is working on only half the problem. The other threat, not addressed in Canadian federal regulation, is managing a distressed vessel before it can founder, sink or get grounded and break up - and siphoning all the oil out of it before a potentially minor incident degrades into a disaster.
"Everybody focuses on oil. Oil is the product of a marine casualty. You've got to deal with the marine casualty in a parallel fashion with the oil spill. You've got to be doing something with the vessel casualty, period."
Reid said there are also major gaps, compared to the United States, in Canada's current ability to recover the broader costs of a spill from the company that is responsible for it.
Paying for cleanup
He said that is particularly true when it comes to compensation for long-term social and economic disaster that can attend a major spill - such as a loss of income for workers and entrepreneurs in small coastal communities that rely on activities such as tourism, fishing and aquaculture.
"In the United States they do a national resource damage assessment, and assess the economic losses. Then they bill the responsible party. In the Exxon Valdez case it was $900 million. Canada does not have a national resource damage assessment policy and process."
International funds are not available to provide that.
"It's not even discussed in the States. It's a given. That could be a real problem on the south coast if we had a spill that washes over the Juan de Fuca, or the San Juan Islands [along the Canada-U.S. Border] - and someone in the States asks for a national resource damage assessment while in Canada we are just sitting here shrugging our shoulders."
Enbridge is proposing to use two escort tugs with each tanker moving through the inside waters, including one that would be tethered to the tanker in order to keep it from running adrift in the event of a mechanical failure.
It also commits to international protocols whereby all tankers coming into Kitimat would be vetted for their safety and for the integrity of their ownership records before they're allowed to berth or load up.
However, Environment Minister Barry Penner, in a recent interview, said that the province has a continuing concern about the lack of coordination and communication between the Canadian Coast Guard and other agencies that would respond in the event of a spill.
Penner saw the problem first-hand four years ago, when he travelled to Prince Rupert to visit the command centre that had been set up to deal with fuel leaks after the sinking of the Queen of the North ferry.
"It was kind of like a war room. We had people from ministry of environment, somebody from B.C. parks, BC Ferries, Environment Canada, DFO and Transport Canada but I believe the Canadian Coast Guard wasn't in that room," Penner said. "Their view traditionally has been that they have to be a bit standoffish and separate - yet that's not how it works in the United States. The U.S. Coast Guard is willing to integrate themselves into a unified command structure involving state agencies and federal agencies in the U.S.
"It seemed [in Prince Rupert] like there was the opportunity for less coordination than might be possible if everybody was literally around the same table at the same time, hearing the same information in real time.
"I on behalf of the B.C. government have worked on behalf of my federal counterpart in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to request that the Canadian Coast Guard be more willing to integrate themselves into a unified command."
Penner said that he and officials in his ministry have raised the issue several times with the federal government - so far without success.
"We have a pretty solid plan to respond to a potential spill but there is likely always ways you can do even better.
Jennifer Lash, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, said that unless the problem is addressed, there is a risk that the response to a spill could be mishandled.
"What we need is a much better coordinated, single strategy with all agencies from the different levels working very well together in partnership with first nations and environmental groups," Lash said.
"Add more oil tanker traffic on the B.C. coast - as Enbridge is proposing - and you increase the risk for a potential disaster, as well as the likelihood that the provincial and federal governments will be too bound up in interjurisdictional disputes to take effective control of the situation in the event of a tanker spill."
The owner of the tanker is liable for the costs of oil recovery, cleanup and compensation for environmental damage - but only to the limit of the owner's liability insurance.
There are additional funds, up to $1.27 billion per incident, available through international marine organizations.
Lash said Living Oceans remains concerned that Canadian taxpayers could end up digging money out of their own pockets if those third party funds are exhausted.
"It is our understanding that the shipper is responsible up to a certain amount based on their insurance. What that amount is, is very unclear. We don't know that and they don't have to tell us."
Questioning the demand
Meanwhile a rival pipeline company is asserting that there's no need for the Enbridge project in the first place.
Kinder Morgan, which manages the Trans Mountain pipeline system that has carried Alberta oil to B.C. for more than 50 years, argued this week in written comments to the National Energy Board that Enbridge does not have sufficient "commercial support'' - or pipeline customers - to justify the cost of the project.
Kinder Morgan said that its own plan to increase the capacity in the Trans Mountain line from 300,000 barrels of oil per day to 700,000 won't proceed without more customers, and is asking the NEB to halt the Northern Gateway hearing unless Enbridge can prove it has enough customers to keep its pipeline running full.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun
Tankers moving down Douglas Channel and along the B.C. coast pass through a range of environmentally sensitive areas, as well as important habitat for birds, fish and mammals. Some observers say the risk of adverse impact from an oil spill is too great to allow tanker traffic. Northern Gateway pipeline project proponent Enbridge says a large spill could have both immediate and long-term effects on the health of wildlife, fish and humans, and reduce habitat quality. But it contends that 'such incidents would be unlikely' because of accident prevention measures the company promises to implement if the project is approved.
Photograph by: graphics, Vancouver Sun
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]