Kinder Morgan: Vancouver not ready for a major oil spill, experts warn
Starting in September 2012, Texas-based pipeline giant Kinder Morgan will begin public consultations for an estimated $4 billion expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands in Edmonton to through Metro Vancouver. Their plan is to more than double the capacity of the pipeline by 2017. The project rivals Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, which aims to export crude oil from Alberta tar sands through the Great Bear Rainforest. With the benefit of an existing right-of-way, could Kinder Morgan succeed in making Vancouver the first major artery of oil sands expansion on the West Coast? Or will their record of oil spills tar up their plans?
This is the second of a five part series, Southern Gateway: An American pipeline giant's plans for Vancouver.
Oil tankers the size of skyscrapers carry diluted bitumen from Alberta's oil sands through the Vancouver harbour each week. If one grounded, as Shell’s ship did in Alaska on Saturday, the leaking bitumen would unleash a cloud of toxic fumes that could envelop the city and force people to flee as they did in Michigan two years ago during the first major oil sands spill.
Experts and federal regulators have been raising concerns about the lack of resources to deal with a major oil spill along Canada’s West Coast for years. Instead of heeding their warnings, the federal government has made emergency preparedness worse.
Stafford Reid, a marine risk expert and emergency planner with 20 years of experience, wrote a report in 2008 highlighting the fact that British Columbia was simply unprepared for a marine emergency.
“Nobody is essentially watching the store,” Reid wrote. “At least not the whole building.”
Reid estimated it would take a mere three or four full time staff to make up the amount of time that the government puts into emergency preparedness for a major oil spill.
“The lack of an effective mechanism to provide public oversight on emergency preparedness,” he wrote, is partly to blame.
Those concerns were raised even before budget cuts to Transport Canada’s panel of experts that makes recommendations on emergency planning (the Pacific Regional Advisory Council on Oil Spill Response), as well as recent cuts to Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans which have further weakened Canada’s emergency preparedness.
In 2010, the federal Auditor General released a 42-page report slamming Canada’s ability to handle a major oil spill. The federal government’s decision to shut down a regional environmental emergency response centre, set up to deal with coordinating oil spill cleanups, as well as the Kitsilano Coast Guard, have increased Vancouver’s risk of a small accident becoming a disaster.
Texas-based Kinder Morgan plans to more than double the capacity of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from Edmonton to Burnaby and onto Bellingham, Washington. If successful, the expansion would increase capacity to 750,000 barrels of oil per day and result in up to 300 tankers visiting the Burrard Inlet each year to pick up oil sands crude for export. The jump in tankers would equal a thirteen-fold increase since the company purchased the pipeline and its Burnaby Westridge terminal in 2005.
The company states it will begin public consultations on their expansion plans in September and apply to the NEB in 2013.
Shallow, narrow channel poses extra risks
Shallow waters in Vancouver present challenges and extra risks. Before journeying to the open sea, tankers transporting oil through Vancouver navigate through the shallow waters of Second Narrows, which ebb and flow through the heart of the city. The channel is only 120 metres wide (half the size of some tankers) and there’s as little as 1.35 metres between the bottom of the boats and the ocean floor. Tankers are only allowed to travel during daylight at high tides.
An oil tanker goes under the Second Narrows bridge in Vancouver. Screenshot from No Tanks video on YouTube.
In the wake of the major British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Vancouver City Council held a public hearing in the summer of 2010 to address concerns about tanker traffic and the risks of a major oil spill. Amidst the Transport Canada officials was a marine biologist from North Vancouver named Peter Baker who gave a detailed presentation on the risks.
He stressed that with larger tankers, there is less room for error. A worst case scenario involves a tanker grounding in the Second Narrows as the tide rushes out with the oil.
A national emergency plan is supposed to be in the works after Transport Canada, the federal agency that regulates shipping, and the Canadian Coast Guard, the first responders in the event of an oil spill, both agreed to carry out the Auditor General recommendations to do a comprehensive risk assessment with Environment Canada.
Shail Malcolmson, chair of the Islands Trust Council, and other local leaders wants these plans finalized, implemented and taken into consideration before the NEB makes any further decisions that will impact the coast.
Another small step towards expansion
On June 29th, Kinder Morgan filed a toll application to the NEB, another step in gaining the financial justification to move ahead with their expansion. The toll application concerns the price per barrel the company intends to charge shippers for use of their pipeline.
The application would set tolls and terms for 20 years, states a press release from Kinder Morgan.
Burnaby-Douglas MP Kennedy Stewart has encouraged the public to voice their concerns or opinions about the Trans Mountain pipeline during any public consultations at this stage.
Eighty per cent of the oil coming down the pipeline will be for export to foreign buyers, Stewart told Burnabynow.com. The remaining 20 per cent of oil will be reserved for domestic use and will be charged a 10 per cent shipping premium over the foreign buyers.
Domestic users could end up paying up to 27.5 per cent more in shipping than foreign buyers, Stewart said.
He's concerned that local gas prices will go up as a result and that the Chevron refinery in Burnaby, which has applied for priority acess to the oil coming down the Trans Mountain pipeline, will essentially be unable to compete and could even close down at the expense of local jobs.
The next steps
In 2013, Kinder Morgan plans to file a "Facilities Application" that will ask the NEB for permission to expand. This application is supposed to launch a process of Aboriginal engagement and landowner and public consultation.
When asked if Kinder Morgan Canada will inform the City of Vancouver before it makes an application to the NEB, Hobenshield told the Vancouver Observer,
"We are committed to hosting an inclusive and transparent enagement process throughout the duration of the expansion proposal. We will continue to provide accurate and ongoing updates throughout the duration of this entire project. We have met with City of Vancouver representatives and other local governments and plan to continue this dialogue as we move forward."