Truths, myths about Trans Mountain pipeline
IS PROPOSED PIPELINE EXPANSION REALLY THE OCEAN-MURDERING HELLSPAWN B.C. SAYS IT IS?
If you ask the B.C. government why it’s trying to block the federally approved Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, it will say it’s all about protecting the ocean. “I’m standing up for the coast, man,” B.C. Premier John Horgan said last month.
Rather than crude oil, the Trans Mountain pipeline will carry diluted bitumen, a heavier and more viscous petroleum product. Pipeline opponents maintain that this makes the project a uniquely dangerous environmental threat.
There may be some truth to that, but it’s safe to say that B.C. is currently awash in a galaxy of pipeline fears that don’t necessarily square with reality.
Below, our attempt to explain the risks, debunk the myths and illustrate, as best as possible, whether the Trans Mountain pipeline really is the destroyer of worlds that activists say it is.
THE PIPELINE MAKES A COASTAL B.C. SPILL MORE LIKELY
Currently, about five tankers per month pull into the waters off Vancouver and fill up with diluted bitumen shipped in on the existing Trans Mountain pipeline system. The pipeline expansion would increase that number to more than 30 per month. The points below discuss the relative risk that these extra tankers represent, risk that the National Energy Board deemed to be “acceptable.” However, if British Columbian opponents cannot abide any increase in risk to ocean safety, nothing is going to change their minds on the pipeline. A complicating factor is that most of the economic benefits from the pipeline will flow to Alberta and B.C. Interior communities.
NOBODY REALLY KNOWS WHAT BITUMEN WILL DO IN SALTWATER
Diluted bitumen (dilbit) is the raw molasses-like product extracted from the Athabasca oilsands, mixed in with diluents to make it fluid enough to travel through a pipeline. The product is heavier and more viscous than conventional crude, so the fear is that while regular spilled oil can be skimmed from the surface, diluted bitumen will sink to the bottom. A massive 2010 spill of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River, for instance, resulted in thousands of litres sinking to the bottom, from where it had to be painstakingly dredged and vacuumed out. This has prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to warn that dilbit sinks within a “matter of days” after a spill. But dilbit will float upon contact with water and there are unknowns about what causes it to sink and how quickly. “Despite the importance of oil type, the overall impact of an oil spill … depends mainly on the environmental characteristics, the conditions where the spill takes place and the speed of response,” said a 2015 report by the Royal Society of Canada. Context is everything in an oil spill.
… BUT LABORATORY TESTS KEEP FINDING THAT DILUTED BITUMEN FLOATS
The National Academy of Sciences report quoted above was a literature review; it didn’t do any original research. And while there are very few direct studies into the behaviour of dilbit in saltwater, the ones that exist have generally favoured the “dilbit floats” camp. The one cited in National Energy Board documents was a study that poured dilbit into saltwater tanks to see if it could be cleaned up with conventional oil-spill equipment. The study concluded that dilbit needed two things to sink. First, a period of “weathering,” in which lighter components could evaporate from the dilbit. Then sediments need to cling to the remaining product and drag it to the bottom. The conclusion was that dilbit wasn’t particularly unique in this behaviour and acted like “many other heavy crude oils.”
DILBIT IS NOT MORE PRONE TO INLAND SPILLS
The aforementioned Kalamazoo spill, which occurred when a ruptured Enbridge pipeline leaked nearly four million litres of dilbit, helped popularize the notion that dilbit is more prone to spill because it corrodes metal quicker. However, this has been debunked by U.S. research. As well, the Trans Mountain pipeline might actually reduce the amount of oil likely to spill in the B.C. Interior by reducing the vast numbers of trains currently transporting bitumen to the coast.
REGULAR TANKER TRAFFIC ISN’T UNIQUELY DANGEROUS TO KILLER WHALES
Lots of anti-pipeline literature has been premised on the notion that, even without a spill, the Trans Mountain pipeline will manage to get B.C.’s orcas killed. There are 76 orcas who live in the Salish Sea, constituting the only endangered North American orca population. Ecojustice called the pipeline a “death knell” to orcas, while the Raincoast Conservation Foundation called it “the death certificate” for the southern resident killer whale population. Noise and vessel collisions are indeed a hazard to B.C. orcas, but by 2026 Port Metro Vancouver is expecting to process 6,500 vessels per year. Of that total, only 4.6 per cent will represent the 300 extra tankers per year expected to be brought by an expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
IT’S REASONABLE TO EXPECT A MARINE SPILL WOULD NOT HAPPEN
Even as global oil consumption has soared and sea lanes have become increasingly packed, the amount of oil spilling into oceans has plummeted. In 1974, there were nearly 3,000 oil spills of more than seven tonnes, according to data maintained by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation. In 2016, there were fewer than 100. The decrease closely mirrors a similar decrease in commercial aviation crashes over the same period. In both cases, industry responded to each accident with new safety measures, with the inevitable result that spill-causing mistakes have plummeted. According to Kinder Morgan risk calculations, a major spill would be a once-in-473-years event.
KINDER MORGAN HAS NO LIABILITY FOR A MARINE SPILL
Enbridge spent US$1.21 billion cleaning up the Kalamazoo spill. If the Trans Mountain pipeline suffered a similar rupture, Kinder Morgan would similarly be on the hook to clean it up, remediate affected areas and compensate victims. But Kinder Morgan’s responsibility ends as soon as a tanker pulls away from port. If the unthinkable should happen, British Columbians would be left to seek compensation from whatever foreign-flagged vessel did the deed. There are a number of funds designed to kick in should a marine spill occur, but British Columbia can expect to collect a maximum of only $1.3 billion in the event of a spill. When adjusting for inflation, it’s much less than the US$1.025-billion settlement paid after the Exxon Valdez spill. Even then, the Valdez settlement is notorious for failing to cover the true costs of the disaster. “I got 10 cents on the dollar for my losses,” one gillnetter told the Anchorage Daily News in 2016.
THE SPILL RESPONSE ISN’T NOTHING
Vancouver is the headquarters of Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, the industry funded private company in charge of spill response on the B.C. coast. While the company maintains caches all along the coast, its response times are shortest in the Vancouver area. In addition, Trans Mountain announced last year that spill response would be beefed up by $150 million in preparation for the pipeline. Still, Western Canada Marine Response is only rated to deal with a spill under 10,000 tonnes. This is only onetenth of the volume spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Tim Armstrong, the fire chief in New Westminster, told a Trans Mountain ministerial panel that he had concerns about Kinder Morgan’s stated plans to respond to a large-scale spill with teams from Alberta. “That’s not an emergency response. That’s a remediation plan,” he said.
Opponents of the Trans Mountain expansion say the project is a “death knell” for endangered southern resident killer whales, but tankers represent less than five per cent of the vessels expected to be processed in Vancouver by 2026.