A Kinder Morgan employee prepares a tanker ship for departure at Trans Mountain’s Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, BC. Photo credit: Trans Mountain
The Aframax-class tanker — 245 metres long and loaded with oilsands bituman piped in from Alberta — pulls away from the marine terminal at Burnaby, BC, moving through Burrard Inlet past Stanley Park. As the tanker enters the busy northern entrance of Haro Strait, it runs aground on Arachne Reef, slicing open the double hull and spilling 100,000 barrels of oil into an ocean teeming with life.
The Arachne Reef, known for its expanse of estuaries and tidal flats, hosts a variety of coastal creatures, including an estimated two million shorebirds and seabirds. South resident orcas and harbor seals swim through its waters and sea lions are spotted here during the winter. Lurking among the underwater kelp forests and sea grass beds are the world’s largest octopuses, along with sea urchins, mollusks, intertidal clams, sea stars and scallops.
A spill of oil on the reef would have a devastating effect on this vibrant, rich ecosystem and, according to reports, would likely spread to Boundary Bay, the Gulf Islands, San Juan Islands, the Salish Sea as well as the Juan de Fuca Strait.
Is this dystopian scenario, as some pundits predict, British Columbia’s future? Such a disaster is indeed “plausible,” according to the 2013 oil spill modelling report Trans Mountain Expansion Project Oil Spill Response Simulation Study Arachne Reef and Westridge Marine Terminal. However the report, published by Trans Moutain, downplays the risk, stating that the probability is extremely low due to the use of a tug tethered to a tanker to prevent it running aground.
The two main pipelines that have come under national as well as local scrutiny by environmentalists, BC residents and politicians are the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expanded pipeline. The $7.9 billion Enbridge project includes twin 1,177 kilometre pipelines connecting Kitimat with Bruderheim, Alta., 50 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. The westbound pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen (or dilbit) with the ability to expand to 850,000 barrels daily. The eastbound pipeline would carry 193,000 barrels of condensate daily. The bitumen would be loaded onto tankers — from the Aframax to the much bigger Very Large Crude Carrier-class — at Kitimat’s two-berth marine terminal for export to Asian markets. About 220 tankers per year would dock at the terminal, increasing to 331 tankers when the pipeline reached full capacity, according to the 2013 Simon Fraser University report A Spill Risk Assessment of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. The Government of Canada approved the pipeline last June, subject to 209 conditions as set out by the Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
The proposed $5.4 billion Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, ending at an expanded Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, would originate in Strathcona County, Alta. and transport 890,000 barrels a day of diluted bitumen crude oil over 1,150 kilometres. This would increase marine traffic from the current number of eight tankers a month to 34. The City of Burnaby, which opposes the pipeline expansion, claims that, with the terminal located within two watersheds, the risk of oil entering the water system could potentially affect Burnaby’s Central Valley, including Burnaby Lake and Brunette River as well as the Fraser River Estuary and Burrard Inlet.
But it is more than just marine ecosystems that a tanker spill would impact. An unmitigated tanker spill in the Salish Sea off Vancouver or in the northwest waters off Kitimat would also impact commercial fishing and aquaculture industries, affect water- and land-based tourism and recreation and potentially damage aboriginal fishing, harvesting and cultural sites.
A Western Canada Marine Response Corp. primary containment barge, which transfers recovered oil to a larger tank barge, deploys an oil-containment boom in Burrard Inlet, a fjord separating Vancouver from the North Shore, also reaches Burnaby and Port Moody. Photo credit: Western Canada Marine Response Corporation
Canada’s petroleum industry takes the position that the environmental versus economic trade-off is heavily weighted towards oilsands development. New international markets are urgently needed for a product that underpins not only Alberta’s economy but boosts the national GDP.
The question is: how much risk is acceptable? Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain’s oil spill modelling of the 100,000-barrel spill into Haro Strait described above is “credible worst-case scenario” — a one in 2,366 year event. “There has never been a spill from a ship associated with Westridge Marine Terminal,” which has operated 60 years and loaded more than 900 tankers, says Michael Davies, senior director of marine development at Kinder Morgan.
The other questions are: what does the risk actually entail and what is the effect of bitumen on a marine environment? Unfortunately, this is an area where the waters become murky. “Little information is available on the fate and behaviour of diluted bitumen in water,” states a federal report completed in March 2015 by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the consulting firm Aquaponika Ltd. “There is currently a lack of research assessing the potential effects of diluted bitumen and synthetic oil on aquatic organisms,” the report reads.
Like all petroleum oils, dilbit and the chemicals in it can be just as potentially hazardous to people and wildlife as any other type of crude oil and the report notes that mono-aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene “are often associated with acute toxicity” in aquatic life. Exposure can cause several biological effects including increased mortality, early-life-stage developmental defects, reduced reproductive capacity, genetic damage, impaired immune function and disease resistance and changes in behaviour in organisms.
Lurking in the eddies of public memory is the March 1989 disaster of the Exxon Valdez tanker, which ran aground and dumped more than 257,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska’s coast. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council estimates that 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales died, while billions of salmon and herring eggs were destroyed. Trans Mountain, which cites the Exxon Valdez spill in its modelling scenarios, states that the company “recognizes that an unmitigated oil spill from a tanker could have intermediate to long-term effects on the biophysical and human environment of the Salish Sea.” Modelling of a credible worst-case spill at the Arachne Reef location in Haro Strait showed that the moving oil slick would affect up to 2,917 square kilometres of ocean surface, an area the size of Metro Vancouver. Oil would reach about 300 kilometres of shore. However, the company predicts that shoreline habitat would biologically recover within two to five years; fish populations killed or harmed would recover within one to two years; seabirds within two to five years and marine mammals within 10 years.
Workers construct a pipeline for the Anchor Loop project, a 158-kilometre section of pipe linking Hinton, Alta. and Hargreaves, BC. It is installed adjacent to Trans Mountain’s existing pipeline, just west of Mount Robson Provincial Park. Photo by: Trans Mountain
The rebound of almost all species from the Exxon Valdez spill, “while a major disaster caused by the grounding of a large single-hulled tanker, shows that marine ecosystems do recover from the effects of oil spills,” Trans Mountain reports. But Jay Ritchlin, director general, Western Canada at the David Suzuki Foundation, who worked in commercial fisheries in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, says that 25 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, “there’s clear evidence that herring populations have been suppressed. Pink salmon have been having a very difficult time in that area . . . and they’re still finding chemically relevant oil residues on the beaches.”
One of the most contentious issues involving diluted bitumen is whether a spill into a river, lake or the ocean would sink more readily than other types of crude oil, making cleanup even more difficult. Critics say it would, but the petroleum industry and government scientists say regulations require all pipelined dilbit to be less dense or heavy than freshwater or seawater, which means any spill would initially float. Northern Gateway conducted tests in large tanks to measure the density of weathered dilbit and if it would sink under simulated conditions. (Weathered dilbit is diluted bitumen that behaves in different ways depending upon the environmental conditions it is exposed to.) “At no time during the two-week-long tests did diluted bitumen weather to a density greater than water,” says Northern Gateway communications manager Ivan Giesbrecht. Based on the results of separate tank tests of two dilbit products, conducted by federal agencies, “the major factor causing petroleum products to sink is when they undergo extensive mixing with sediments,” says Environment Canada media officer Danny Kingsberry. “Without sediment mixing, diluted bitumens can remain floating in seawater for long periods.”
Dilbit mixing with sediment in turbulent water can sink, as it did in a 2010 spill from an Enbridge pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. But the JRP that conducted hearings on the Northern Gateway project said the evidence “does not indicate that dilbit is prone to sink in the marine environment.” Jacinthe Perras, a spokeswoman for Natural Resources Canada, says condition No. 169 of the panel’s 209 conditions for approval “requires Northern Gateway to undertake a research program regarding the behaviour and cleanup (including recovery) of heavy oils spilled in freshwater and marine aquatic environments.” Industry also is supporting an independent study by the Royal Society of Canada that will test dilbit and other types of crudes in various waters and conditions.
When it comes to preventing a spill or leak, Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain both say all tankers — which must have double hulls — will be surrounded by an oil-containment boom while loading. All tankers will be guided by experienced BC coast pilots and be accompanied by two escort tugs, including one tethered to each tanker to prevent it running aground. “We have committed to having a spill-response capacity that is three times the current regulatory requirements,” says Northern Gateway’s Giesbrecht. “In the unlikely event of a spill, we will have emergency response personnel and equipment located at the Kitimat marine terminal and along the vessel routes to ensure the fastest response time possible.”
Northern Gateway’s twinned pipelines will be built of thicker steel than required and be monitored around the clock with dual leak-detection equipment. Each line will have 132 remotely operated isolation valves that can rapidly shut down and close any section affected by a leak or spill. Trans Mountain is upgrading leak detection at its Westridge Marine Terminal with new flow metres using ultrasound. “Regular emergency response drills ensure that in the unlikely event of a spill we have all our resources lined up for an effective, efficient and well-coordinated response,” says Kinder Morgan’s Davies.
In 2007, a backhoe ruptured the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, spilling about 1,400 barrels of bitumen mixed with synthetic crude oil through Burnaby’s sewer system into Burrard Inlet. The Western Canada Marine Response Corp. (WCMRC) successfully recovered more than 94 percent of the spill, says Michael Lowry, manager of communications. “The existing technology (such as mechanical skimmers) works perfectly well” to clean up diluted bitumen spills, Lowry says.
Western Canada Marine Spill Response Corp.’s tank barge, which can hold 4,000 tonnes, or about 29,000 barrels, of oil, near a containment boom during a recovery exercise in Howe Sound, BC. Photo credit: Western Canada Marine Response Corporation
The cleanup crews were lucky: excellent conditions, including good weather and a sheltered inlet environment, aided cleanup in Burrard Inlet. Ritchlin of the Suzuki Foundation says that for a major oil spill on the remote, rugged and sometimes severe-weather Northwest Coast, “with the best spill prevention in the world — even if you had it — on a stormy day you’re not necessarily going to have the response times or the capacity to clean up enough.”
A November 2013 report by Transport Canada’s Tanker Expert Safety Panel recommended that Canada’s four certified spill-response organizations move to a risk-based planning model. This means new response standards will focus on areas now being mapped by the WCMRC, where there is the highest risk of an accident and the greatest sensitivity — based on population, amount of human activity, ecological value and other criteria. The WCMRC also built packages for both Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain for the new bases, personnel and equipment required for enhanced spill-response capacity on the West Coast. “The intention is to have that enhanced capacity in place by the time the two pipelines are operating,” Lowry says.
But Keith Stewart, head of the energy campaign for Greenpeace Canada, echoes the thinking of many British Columbians — including Burnaby’s and Vancouver’s mayors — when he says: “We don’t have faith in the industry’s ability to prevent spills. They’ll say, ‘We’ll reduce the risk.’ But they’ll never say, ‘We won’t have a spill.’ ”
It boils down to how much risk British Columbians are willing to tolerate and how much faith they are willing to put in the assurances of oil companies and national government agencies. As Perras from Natural Resources Canada says: “The government has been clear. No pipeline project will proceed unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment.” Based upon what we know — which is that we don’t know very much about the effect of a diluted bitumen spill on the environment — is it safe to base public policy on such uncertainty?