Smooth Sailing for Oil Tankers?

Recently, British Columbia MP (Member of Parliament) Gary Lunn asserted that professionals should be left to decide on oil tanker routes for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. Lunn made the statement in response to a private members bill introduced by opposition MP Joyce Murray that would ban oil tankers on B.C.’s north coast. We wonder if Lunn’s concern extends to the Enbridge corporation or is it just limited to the official opposition?

On virtually the same day as Lunn’s comment, Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel confidently stated to the media that his company’s pipeline and oil tanker scheme “will get the green light from Canada’s regulatory authorities.” It would appear Daniel either has a crystal ball or has insider information that the fix is in at the National Energy Board to approve the Northern Gateway.

It is astonishing that Enbridge would boldly predict victory in the regulatory process when the NEB’s Joint Review Panel for Northern Gateway hasn’t fully commenced. It not only smacks of arrogance, but reveals a profound disrespect for the public interveners in the JRP, who are operating under the assumption that their concerns will be legitimately examined in the federal hearing. It does, however, substantiate the apprehension of many British Columbians who view the review process with a jaundiced eye. That cynicism will likely intensify as a result of Daniel’s braggadocio.

While Lunn argues that “decisions on the safety of supertankers transporting oil through B.C.’s northern waterways” should be left to some vague, undefined cadre of “professionals,” professional scientists at Raincoast Conservation Foundation have been analyzing the risk associated with Northern Gateway, producing a comprehensive report (What’s at Stake: the cost of oil on British Columbia’s priceless coast) that is available for download on the Raincoast website.

The marine approaches to the coast of northern B.C. and the port of Kitimat are a dangerous coastline for ships. This area is at least as dangerous as Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in Valdez Arm. An estimated 225 supertankers per year would enter Kitimat to load approximately 318 million litres of oil for shipment to American and Asian markets.

More than 400,000 vessel movements occur annually on the B.C. coast, so it is not surprising that accidents, including collisions, groundings and fires are common.

Should an accident occur off the B.C. coast involving a large ship, serious inadequacies in response capabilities would hinder rescue and containment operations. The south coast, for example, relies heavily on the availability of American rescue tugs based out of Washington state to respond to incidents. Procedures between the B.C. government and the federal government to coordinate responses to large vessel incidents are not well harmonized.

A November article by Postmedia News revealed that according to an internal audit “The Canadian Coast Guard lacks the training, equipment and management systems to fulfill its duties to respond to offshore pollution incidents such as oil spills . . . The audit paints an alarming picture of an agency that would play a key role in Canada’s response to a major oil spill off the world’s longest coastline.” The article also identifies the relatively paltry budget of $9.8 million for the coast guard’s environmental response unit.

Economists have tried to predict the costs of oil spill clean up. Globally, the cost to industry for spill cleanup averages $16,000 US per tonne not including the costs to restore habitat or repair socio-economic damages to the communities impacted.

In 2003, the cost of cleaning up a 378,000-litre heavy fuel oil spill in San Francisco Bay was an estimated $93 million. Forty to sixty percent of the estimated cost was attributed to restoring habitat and compensating for socio-economic losses.  However, in 2007 when the Cosco Busan spilled a little over half that amount into the Bay, the cost for the clean up alone was $70 million. In other words, true costs dramatically exceeded the estimates.

The Exxon Valdez spill was the most expensive in history; the true costs were estimated to be $9.5 billion, of which only $2.5 billion were related to clean-up. While Exxon-Mobil paid more than $1 billion, U.S. taxpayers ended up footing the bill for the rest.

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Misty MacDuffee is a conservation biologist with Raincoast.