Lost Islands of Enbridge: a tanker's tale

Oil giant Enbridge tried to tell Canadians last week that there were no worries getting their bitumen supertankers from Kitimat on the coast of BC out into the open ocean. That’s because their instructional video of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline route deleted 1000km2 of islands. That’s awkward.

My boss is a boats guy – though he prefers pretty wooden boats to supertankers, so he decided to get some nautical charts from the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to see what the route actually looked like.

The Douglas Channel gets narrow

The journey the tankers will have to go on, once they get the bitumen through the Rockies and along the Great Bear Rainforest (you know, that protected temperate rainforest?), and out to the promised golden markets of Asia to create Canada as an Energy Superpower (which is allegedly Harper’s ‘vision’ for Canada) is a pretty perilous one. Several experienced ship captains and master mariners have already expressed their concerns about supertankers doing things like attempting a zigzag turn around the northern point of Gil Island, which is home to a whale research stationand very busy with whale traffic in the summer.


Zig, then zag: what’s the turning circle on these ships?

Interestingly, the researchers at Cetacealab on Gil Island recently sent us a recording of what tanker traffic sounds like underwater. It sounds like you’re standing at a level crossing as a huge CN Rail train goes by at high speed. It must give the local whales massive headaches.

Once the tankers have wended their way around all those lost islands of Enbridge (obviously without any issues with strong tides, high waves, squally winds and abruptly changing weather conditions), they still need to squeeze out through Otter Channel before they’re in open seas.


Looking from Kitimat along the tanker route.

And that’s even before considering the difficulties of attempting to clean up a spill.

Bitumen is thicker and heavier than conventional oil, so as Enbridge discovered in their $800 million (and counting) clean-up of the 2010 Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan, it doesn’t float. It’s also nearly impossible to clean up any kind of oil spill in water with waves of more than one metre. But I’m sure there won’t be any issues with cleaning up bitumen off the bottom of the ocean floor around the islands, right? It was also revealed recently that Enbridge hasn’t prepared for the differences between bitumen and conventional crude in their spill plans either.

And I’m sure the $864 million per year fishing industry on the coast of BC won’t have any issues with an Enbridge oil spill – especially with the frankenfish and mutant shrimp that are now being caught off the coast of Louisiana where the BP Deepwater Horizon spill occurred in 2010.

The proposed pipeline to Kitimat and the tanker route out to the ocean is one giant catastrophe after another waiting to happen – no wonder Enbridge deleted the inconvenient islands. But since this is a company that lurches from one disaster to another – that ignores corrosion in their pipelines, tries to turn ruptured pipes back on and was described by the US National Transportation Safety Board as having ‘pervasive organisational failures’, I’m not inclined to just trust them. Their record of incompetence speaks for itself.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, the pictures of the scale tankers were incorrect by a factor of 10. Sometimes our readers are our best editors. The Vancouver Observer and the author apologise for the error and have removed the photos because we would never suggest that they were only there for illustrative purposes.

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