Kinder Morgan Canada is expected to soon announce that it will seek to twin its Trans Mountain Pipeline between northern Alberta and Burnaby. The twinning would mean a huge increase in the amount of crude that transits the pipeline, and in the number of oil tankers passing through local waters each year. This second installment of a three-part Black Press series looks at the risks involved. NEXT ISSUE: A look at the politics of the pipeline, and alternatives.
By Wanda Chow
Ask an environmentalist what they think of the potential for a massive crude oil spill in Burrard Inlet and invariably they bring up the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan.
That’s where in July 2010 an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, releasing about 19,500 barrels (3.1 million litres) of oil into the nearby river, making it the largest inland oil spill in the history of the U.S. Midwest. More than 18 months later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to struggle to clean up the mess.
So what does an inland oil spill three thousand kilometres away have in common with what could happen here in Greater Vancouver?
Well, the spectre of an oil spill is being raised in light of Kinder Morgan Canada’s proposal to twin its Trans Mountain pipeline that stretches from Edmonton to Burnaby. The company has yet to make a formal application to the National Energy Board, but the project is aimed at exports of bitumen crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to China, on supertankers that could hold as much as one million barrels.
‘Worst crude of all’
The common denominator is bitumen crude, a less refined crude thick as molasses that contains additives to allow it to flow freely enough to travel through pipelines.
“Of all the crude oil in the world, bitumen from the tar sands is the worst of all,” said Rex Weyler, co-founder of Tanker Free B.C., a group that wants to see oil tankers banned from B.C.’s coast.
When bitumen hits water, it separates into gases, creating a toxic cloud that includes toluene and benzene, known carcinogens, Weyler said.
Indeed, in Michigan, a large area near the spill was evacuated and hundreds of residents complained of headache, nausea and respiratory symptoms consistent with exposure to crude oil, according to a report by Michigan health officials.
What doesn’t go into the air sinks to the bottom of the river or ocean and “suffocates all the fundamental biological organisms at the root of the food chain,” Weyler said.
Those organisms, which consume dead matter in the water, provide food for the surviving fish, but they won’t survive for long with the food chain disrupted.
As for the cleanup and economic cost of a spill in Burrard Inlet, he noted that estimates for the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico are in the $50 billion range including the cost of compensating the fishing industry and tourism losses.
Based on that, Weyler estimates the cost of a spill here, with potential impact on tourism, fishing and shellfish industries, and the damage to Stanley Park, to be upwards of $40 billion.
And that’s if you can find those responsible to pay up, he noted.
While BP and Enbridge were clearly the polluters who had to pay for the cleanups and other costs, in the case of an oil tanker, they’re operated at an “arm’s length distance” from the oil companies themselves, said Weyler.
The tankers are “owned independently and registered in ports of convenience,” often under numbered companies managed overseas by lawyers. “They can disappear and their only asset is the ship.”
In that case, those billions of cleanup costs will have to shouldered by the taxpayers of British Columbia, he said.
Taxpayers not on the hook
Not so, says Bruce Turnbull of Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), formerly known as Burrard Clean.
All such vessels which sail into Canadian waters must have an arrangement with a spill response organization which, on the west coast, is WCMRC. The tankers, which must be double-hulled, are brought into Vancouver harbour by local pilots who know about any hazards that need to be avoided.
If there is a spill, and the tanker’s owner walks away, the ship would be seized and WCMRC would tap in to the insurance that tanker companies are required to purchase in advance, Canada’s Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund, Turnbull said. If that insurance runs out, a similar international fund is used.
“The taxpayer is not on the hook.”
WCMRC, which is primarily funded by four major oil companies (Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, Chevron and Suncor) and pipeline operator Kinder Morgan, responds to an average 20 spills a year, he said. They range from small gasoline spills from power boats and incidents involving canola oil, to the 100,000-litre spill resulting from the 2007 rupture of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline in North Burnaby, the largest Canadian incident it has responded to on the west coast.
As for how much oil is typically recovered, Turnbull said it’s not 100 per cent, due to a number of variables including evaporation. “Recovery is only part of an overall strategy. Protection and mitigation of damage to resources is a priority.”
Generally, the response involves containing spills with booms and collecting the oil using skimmers. If the responsible party requests a wildlife rescue response, as Kinder Morgan did in 2007, WCMRC may manage it or hire a professional organization to work within the response command structure.
Wildlife left out of the equation
The problem is, not all responsible parties choose to respond to oiled wildlife, and there are no laws forcing them to do so, said Coleen Doucette, vice-president of the Oiled Wildlife Society of B.C.
“The way policies are written in Canada, wildlife is not part of the environment, no one has to clean up wildlife.”
But left out in the wild, not only will oiled birds, otters, seals and other wildlife die, they’ll likely be eaten by predators, continuing to contaminate the environment long after the spill is over, noted Doucette, who is also chair of the animal care committee at Wildlife Rescue Association of B.C.
Doucette worked for Focus Wildlife, one of only three professional wildlife rescue companies in North America, during cleanup of the 2007 spill in Burnaby.
In addition to animals such as seals and otters, waterfowl are perhaps most commonly affected by a spill because the oil removes the natural waterproofing of their feathers, leading to hypothermia.
She has helped provide wildlife rescue response in Alberta after spills of bitumen which she says is far worse than conventional crude.
“It burns the skin dramatically, much more than a product that’s started to be refined.”
Bitumen does more damage and requires more skill to address through a more expensive, specialized and lengthy process, Doucette said.
“In a country where there are no regulations, proper funding is not alloted for wildlife response, it makes it very difficult to now look at needing a more complicated process for rehabilitation when we don’t even have the funding for basic oiled wildlife rehabilitation.”
As it is, she estimated wildlife rehabilitation typically costs one to five per cent of overall cleanup costs of an oil spill, if it’s done at all.
In addition to a lack of local crews trained in oiled wildlife response, local animal welfare and rescue groups simply don’t have the space needed to accommodate large numbers of contaminated wildlife during rehabilitation, she added. What’s needed is a single large building with good ventilation, and adequate water, electricity and open space.
“All those things are really hard to find in one place, oddly enough.”
Pipeline track record ‘excellent’
When it comes to economic impact of a major oil spill in Burrard Inlet, the local business community isn’t willing to speculate.
Peter Xotta, vice president of planning and operations for Port Metro Vancouver, Canada’s largest and busiest port, said such a spill hasn’t happened here so it doesn’t have a point of reference to speculate on.
The port is involved in moving $75 billion worth of goods annually and is responsible for 129,000 jobs across Canada, 80,000 of those in the Lower Mainland, and $10 billion in GDP, Xotta noted.
“So, as relates to our overall mandate, obviously our objective is to make sure all of that activity continues and that there isn’t disruption to any one of those supply chains.”
The port has been handling oil tanker traffic for more than 50 years and has some of the most stringent operating practices of vessels around such tankers, he said.
When asked if an oil spill would prevent cruise ships and cargo ships from coming and going in Vancouver harbour, Xotta said, “An incident of any kind involves notification to other traffic and depending on the circumstances operational plans are modified to deal with that. But once again, we have not had one of those circumstances here and our practices are intended to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Over at Tourism Vancouver, officials declined to speculate on the economic impact of such a spill.
John Winter, president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, was bullish in support of the proposed pipeline expansion.
“The track record is excellent,” he said. “Most of the people opposed to it never knew there was tanker traffic in the first place.”
He’s not concerned about potential risks of the proposal.
“There’s risk in doing everything,” he said. “If measures are put in place to minimize those risks to the extent possible I would think the review bodies will have no choice but to approve it.”
As for whether the chamber would have concerns about the economic implications of a decision to to allow the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion or not, Winter replied, “Only if it’s turned down.”