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Enbridge's pipeline spills, PR headaches and corporate history

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While much has been reported about the proposed pipeline – which will take bitumen from northern Alberta's oil sands 1,172 km from Bruderheim to Kitimat – the project is, in fact, two pipelines.


One of the tubes would carry oil for export, primarily to China; the other would bring back condensate, a chemical liquid used to thin heavier oil products.


The company says its system could export up to 525,000 barrels of oil every day, and bring back roughly 193,000 barrels of condensate. At the end of the line, the proposed Kitimat Marine Terminal would include two ship berths and 14 tankers.


With a price tag of $5.5 billion, the project's proponents hope to open Asian markets to Canadian tar sands oil. The pipelines' destination in Kitimat would put the oil sector in an ideal position along the shipping route – but it also raises environmental concerns about the possibility of oil tanker spills.


Indeed, the importance of China's booming economy was underscored in November 2011, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that selling Canada's oil to China was becoming an “important priority.”


One obstacle to this dream was the dozens of First Nations communities across whose territories such a pipeline system would have to be built. Conscious of the high-stakes of their proposal, and B.C.'s history of Native blockades, lawsuits and protests, Enbridge has offered an equity stake in the project to each of the First Nations bands affected. This would add up to roughly 50 communities, all situated within 80 km on either side of the proposed route.


While several of these nations have agreed to support the project and accept the equity stake, most others have spoken out against it. Foremost amongst these is the Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of First Nations vociferously opposed to the project in any form crossing their land.


On the national scale, in 2011 a group of 150 organizations, businesses and prominent Canadians came together to run a full-page advertisement in the Globe and Mail. Signatories included renowned environmental broadcaster David Suzuki, iconic Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood and rocker Randy Bachman.


The text of the advertisement spoke clearly of the burgeoning alliance between environmentalists and Indigenous groups opposing Enbridge's plans:


“Enbridge's pipeline isn't happening, period. It doesn't matter who they get a deal with. They plan to come through our territories and we've already said no, and we'll use every legal means we have to stop them. Their proposed pipeline is against our laws because we refuse to put our communities at the risk of oil spills.” — Chief Larry Nooski of Nadleh Whut'en First Nation; member of the Yinka Dene Alliance


“The project is not in the public interest from a climate perspective, from a jobs perspective, and from a First Nations title perspective. There’s too much at stake. Why would we risk thousands of jobs in fishing and tourism for a few hundred jobs in construction of the pipeline, and the possibility of some jobs in oil spill cleanup?” — Caitlin Vernon; Sierra Club of BC


“It will be a very, very, very nasty process [and] I’ll be the first one to lie down before a tractor.” — Rafe Mair; Former MLA and BC political commentator



Of course, the Northern Gateway has its cheerleaders, and Enbridge is quick to point out potential benefits of the project: employment opportunities, skills development, and “contributions to the community and the province through a secure tax base at local, provincial and federal levels.”


Despite resistance from many community and Aboriginal groups on the Northern Coast, the project claims it will provide up to 1,150 long-term jobs, with about 165 new jobs in Kitimat alone to operate the terminal.


Informational materials say the project will “raise the bar” when it comes to marine safety, using only double-hulled ships and adding navigational aids to the area to avoid collisions.


The government and industry have been adamant that transporting oil to Asian countries – China foremost among them – should be a priority, particularly if access to the American market is limited by the failure or delay of TransCanada company's Keystone XL pipeline.


"The success of a project on the scale of Northern Gateway depends on the support of the communities it impacts. We know that this support will depend on our ability to prove to communities that our project is safe, that it has been planned responsibly and that environmental protection will always be front-of-mind throughout both construction and the operational life of the project." — John Carruthers; President, Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines


"If the environmental review process confirms that no harm will be done, these are the kind of direct community benefits that I would like to see happen in Kitimat and along the shipping route." — Joanne Monaghan; Mayor of Kitimat



Supertankers in the Tank?

The furor which erupted after the release of Enbridge's pipeline route animation saw the company and environmentalists battle over whether oil ships could safely set out to sea. Such concerns for the cornerstone of both criticisms from opponents and promises from the company itself.


Enbridge has promised 16 key safety measures to ensure the bitumen's safe passage to the Pacific – from double-hulled supertankers to tugboat escorts loaded with emergency supplies.


To the lay person, the safety guarantees sound impressive. But discussions with some professionals in the marine sector suggest there may be more than meets the eye here, a fact Enbridge disputes. According to critics, seven of the sixteen promises, for example, merely reiterate existing laws Enbridge would have to follow regardless:

  • Tankers must be insured and provide proof of insurance

  • Tankers must be double-hulled

  • The tanker must have at least one inspection report in the Ship Inspection Report Program (SIRE) database in the previous two years.

  • The tanker must have English-speaking officers and crew

  • The tankers will not have any expired or temporary certificates onboard.

A tanker must certify that it meets all Flag and Port State requirements

Other promises are simply standard practice:

  • A tanker’s owner must agree to meet all the marine terminal regulations (such as the use of tethered escort and berthing tugs) - in standard contracts.
  • The tankers owner must agree to allow Northern Gateway or its agent access to the tanker for inspection – in standard contracts, but not obligation placed on Enbridge to make inspections.
  • A tanker’s classification society must be a member of the International Association of Classification Societies – This is true for 90% of all tankers.
  • Others promises are the legal responsibility of the Canadian Coast Guard, which is losing front line staff due to federal budget cuts. Enbridge doesn’t suggest who else would be responsible for payment of the measures.
  • Installing and monitoring a radar system to cover critical route sections and a monitoring station in Kitimat for all marine traffic to provide guidance to pilots and other vessels in the area
  • Emergency response equipment and training staff at locations along the marine route

Other promises require ship access by Enbridge personnel but do not require Enbridge to use those visits for safety testing or practice:

  • A tanker’s crew must agree to allow Northern Gateway to place representatives onboard the tanker as required during ballast discharge and loading operations to observe for safety and pollution prevention.

Another guarantee was researched by maritime experts, who concluded that Enbridge's tugboat proposal is both vague and inadequate:

  • The most powerful escort tugs on the West Coast, which will carry emergency response and firefighting equipment.


Escort tugs routinely carry emergency response and firefighting gear, so Enbridge's promise in this regard is, in fact, customary procedure. Otherwise, critics allege that the tugboat escort plan is too vague to ensure Coastal safety. Enbridge's proposal of one escort tug towing the tankers out to sea, and one untethered escort tug for inbound condensate shipments, are simply not enough, according to a report by maritime risk assessor, DNV. Two tugs with a 120-170 Bollard Pull strength would be a more appropriate safety measure, the report suggested, given the hazardous north coast conditions and the disastrous ecological consequences of a spill.

  • Tankers must be a maximum of 20 years old and classified by a suitable classification society.

Tankers go through several classes of ownership in their lifetime. The first tier of owners generally aren’t in the bitumen trade. The second tier of owners often buys tankers that are about ten years old. As the tanker approaches twenty, the more likely it is to end up in ownership by the third tier of owners that accept higher risks in terms of boats and crews. This safety measure addresses the nightmare that lurks in the shadows of tanker discussions: an old tanker with an unwary crew in storm force gales along an unfamiliar coastline rife with rocky hazards. A twenty year maximum guarantees that older, more vulnerable ships operated in a manner that accepts higher risks will ply the waters of BC. A ten year maximum would present a significant reduction of risk. The following regulation speaks to the problem of shifting ownership as well:

  • Tankers must not have changes inownership, classification or insurance underwriters more than once in two years.

However, it does not provide a fool-safe solution.

  • Establishing a first response team in Kitimat that will significantly decrease the federal standard of responding to an incident

A response team in Kitimat could not reach the outer coast in a time frame that would prevent disaster, and a first response team should be stationed in Prince Rupert as well.

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