By R. Bruce Striegler
High on a Burnaby, B.C. hillside overlooking Burrard Inlet and the mountains of Mt. Seymour and Indian Arm Provincial Parks are the Head Office and supply warehouses of Western Canada Marine Response Corporation. Established in 1976 and called Burrard Clean Operations, the operation was initially an industry cooperative of four major oil companies and a pipeline company, providing oil spill response within the Port of Vancouver. Not far away is Westridge Marine Terminal, the end of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline and the only facility on Canada’s West Coast able to ship crude oil by ocean-going tanker.
Canada’s Shipping Act of 1995 brought new safety standards for ships and oil handling facilities and created the industry-funded and managed Marine Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime. The new system was to ensure that industry had the capability to clean up its own spills under the leadership of Transport Canada. The Act required the oil industry to maintain a 10,000 tonne response capability (70,000 barrels) covering marine regions South of 60 degrees N. latitude in Canada.
Following implementation of the 1995 Act, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) was certified by Transport Canada as Canada’s first response organization to provide marine oil spill response services to ships and oil handling facilities on the West Coast and interior navigable waters. Since its inception, WCMRC has provided response to more than 650 spills.
Bruce Turnbull, WCMRC’s business support manager explains the organization continues to be industry-funded. “Our primary shareholders are Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, Chevron, Suncor and Kinder Morgan. Through a membership structure, other marine operations such as cruise lines, BC Ferries, barge and tug companies, container or other dry cargo carriers have joined, taking our membership base to about 2,000.”
The company has 22 permanent staff, eight part-time employees and up to 500 trained responders. “We maintain an inventory of sophisticated spill response equipment, more than 30 vessels and over 50 tightly-packed response trailers,” says Turnbull. “We are ready to provide the expertise and gear, including containment booms and mechanical recovery capabilities necessary to organize and manage marine oil spills along the 27,000 kilometres of B.C.’s coastline.”
Turnbull says that in the face of proposed capacity expansions, WCMRC will expand proportionally. “Currently we have more than double the capacity required through our certification of 10,000 tonnes, or 70,000 barrels.” He explains that should the Northern Gateway pipeline proceed, Port of Kitimat will become a designated port, requiring spill protection certification for the port of the minimum 10,000 tonnes, “We’re ready to meet those requirements should the pipeline proceed.”
Is the issue royalties or spills and spill response?
On the same July day that British Columbia Premier Christy Clark made national headlines with her demands that B.C. must receive increased benefits from the proposed twin-piped Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, the B.C. Government released a 56-page technical analysis outlining its minimum requirements for the expansion of the heavy oil export industry. Lost in the manufactured royalties’ controversy were some startling sections in the report on the state of existing marine spill capabilities in B.C. The report contained eleven recommendations to improve and strengthen oil spill response.
While nationwide headlines have focused on opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal, opposition has also mounted over a second pipeline from Alberta, with Kinder Morgan preparing to expand its 1,150 kilometre Trans Mountain Pipeline. Constructed in 1953, the line carries 300,000 barrels daily. The proposed expansion will raise capacity to 750,000 barrels a day, roughly equal to that of the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal.
From its Westridge Marine Terminal on the Eastern reaches of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, a 20-minute drive from downtown Vancouver’s waterfront parks, beaches and seawalls, the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will swell tanker traffic through the postcard-scenic urban waterway from four or five per month to between 20 or 25. Much of the current pipeline capacity is distributed by surface transportation to the Metro Vancouver and Washington State markets, with only a handful of tanker exports. The increased pipeline capacity is in response to new commitments for export to Asian and California markets accounting for the dramatic rise in tanker trips. Trans Mountain says it has received binding orders, enough to ship 660,000 barrels per day for 20 years.
Responding when a spill happens
Not an insignificant fact behind the opposition is that in the summer of 2007, an excavator doing sewer work in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby ruptured the Trans Mountain Pipeline. A 30-metre geyser of diluted bitumen (dilbit) spewed 250,000 litres onto a residential neighbourhood, 70,000 litres of which drained into Burrard Inlet. The rupture forced evacuation of 250 people and the spill cost an estimated $15 million to clean up.
Western Marine Response Corporation handled the spill recovery. Trevor Davis, WCMRC’s area manager, South Coast, explains the organization handles roughly 20 incidents per year, spills ranging from small gasoline incidents with powerboats to episodes with tankers and canola oil. “The largest responses we’ve handled included the Kinder Morgan Burnaby spill, a 2006 bunker oil cleanup in Squamish of approximately 29,000 litres or 243 barrels, and our work in 2005 at Lake Wabamun, Alberta.” The Alberta spill involved a CN Rail freight train derailment spilling approximately 734,000 litres of bunker oil and a chemical used to treat utility poles.
“We’ve also responded to a request from our Washington State mutual aid partner to assist with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. We sent 15 crews of 13 responders, supervisory personnel, containment and fire booms.” The organization sent a skimming vessel and crew as well as response advisors to assist in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Davis adds that the polluter manages and pays spill recovery costs.
The B.C. Technical Analysis however, says, “Limits of liability rules in Canada mean that a spiller, through insurance and pooled industry funding may not have to spend more than approximately $1.3 billion cleaning up a spill. This means costs could fall to the B.C. and federal governments (i.e. provincial and federal taxpayers), as well as local businesses and residents.” Those costs include clearing beaches of oily waste and disposing of it, rehabilitating oiled wildlife and coastlines, salvaging wreckage and economic impacts to other business sectors operating in the area.
Tanker traffic to almost double in B.C. waters
Each year along the B.C. coast there are about 1,180 tanker trips. This includes tankers carrying jet fuel or gasoline and 60 tanker visits carrying various petrochemicals to or from Kitimat on the northern B.C. coast. With the construction of the proposed oil pipelines, the number of tanker trips will almost double to approximately 2,280 per year.
Tankers are categorized by their size (dead weight tonnes) and their cargo capacity. The only tankers transporting oil in Port Metro Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet waters are called Aframax. They weigh from 70,000 to 120,000 dead weight tonnes, with a capacity of 500,000 to 800,000 barrels of oil. Within these waters, Aframax tankers are currently subject to loading restrictions of 85 per cent (13.5 metres draft) and the larger class Suezmax tankers (weighing from 120,000 to 200,000 dead weight tons, with a capacity of one million barrels) are not permitted.
U.S. tanker traffic also impacts B.C.’s tanker traffic count. In 2010, there were approximately 700 U.S. oil tanker trips. Loaded in Alaska and unloaded in Washington, they make return trips, in each case, passing along the entire outer coastline of B.C. This traffic complies with a voluntary tanker exclusion zone keeping them outside B.C.’s Northern Coastal waters, but still close enough to have an impact in the event of an accident.
The controversy over dilbit – Alberta bitumen
The B.C. Technical Analysis states, “Crude oil and refined oil makes up the majority of the oil products being shipped along North America’s West Coast. As such, most available spill response capacity has been designed to address these types of spills.” Oil may be oil to the financial sector, but the properties of Alberta bitumen are different. In order to attain a viscosity able to be pumped through pipelines, the thick processed bitumen is mixed with a variety of chemical additives including light natural gas or other petroleum products and includes sulphur and heavy metals.
According to many scientific sources, including statements in the B.C. report, dilbit, when spilled in water, is more likely to sink, due to its higher density. In addition, due to its additives, it is environmentally a higher-risk product than crude oil. It is more difficult to recover bitumen and more remediation is required should an unintended release occur, particularly once bitumen sinks into the water column or into soils.
It’s clear, however, that the oil industry, including producers and spill responders, treat dilbit in the same manner as crude, and in fact call it heavy crude. In an October 2011 fact sheet published by the Association of Oil Pipelines, diluted bitumen is referred to as having characteristics similar to other heavy crude currently transported by pipeline in Venezuela, Mexico and California. This information concludes that diluted bitumen is essentially the same as any other type of crude and is not more of a risk to pipelines, people or the environment than other crudes transported via pipeline.
Industry maintains no difference between dilbit and heavy crude
The Association dismisses claims of increased risk to pipeline infrastructure, and states that, “No instances of crude oil release caused by internal corrosion from pipelines carrying Canadian crude are evident in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) pipeline accident data from 2002 through early 2011.” This contrasts with the events of July 25, 2010, when at 5:58 PM local time, a 30-inch pipeline, Enbridge’s Line 6B, originating in Griffith, Indiana, and crossing South-Eastern Michigan ruptured in a wetland at Marshall, Michigan.
As documented in the USDOT accident report, during a planned shutdown, increased pressure ruptured the line. The report says, “The pipeline segment ruptured due to corrosion fatigue cracks that had grown in size until the pipe failed during the planned shutdown.” An estimated 3.2 million litres of oil saturated the surrounding wetlands, flowed into a local creek and then the Kalamazoo River. Hundreds of residents were evacuated, 320 people reported medical problems, and as of July, costs of the cleanup exceeded $US767 million.
WCMRC’s Bruce Turnbull responds to the question of dilbit recovery vs. crude pointing out that the issue is one of density. The National Energy Board prohibits pipeline transport of anything over .94 density, he explains, and says that the density of freshwater is 1.0, with saltwater being even denser, so the propensity of dilbit is to float. “We handled the product during our clean-up of the 2007 Burnaby Kinder Morgan rupture. We know that our equipment was able to clean very effectively. In fact, we found it easier to clean on the water. We were out over a period of days, and at no time did it sink.”
South Coast area manager Trevor Davis adds that testing during and following the Burnaby spill showed no indications of sinking dilbit. Controlled testing using Burrard Inlet seawater and dilbit let stand for nearly three weeks also didn’t sink. ”Our experience was that it floated.” He suggested reasons why the product sunk in the Kalamazoo incident could include water temperatures, lower density freshwater, turbulence of the creek and river (factors cited in the USDOT report) and the sediment created by the turbulence, which would add density.
Existing B.C. spill response requirements too limited
The B.C. Technical Analysis states that West Coast marine spill management needs strengthening to increase capacity for all types of spill scenarios. The report says it is possible that the existing capacity for crude oil spills, from training to equipment, may not be appropriate for bitumen. Thus, a major gap may exist for all current and future bitumen shipments taking place on Canada’s West Coast.
In language unusually blunt from government, the report says, “The existing requirements for marine spill response organizations on the West Coast are insufficient given the potential impacts of a major spill. Chief among these insufficiencies is the modest requirement that response organizations maintain capacity to address spills up to a maximum of 10,000 tonnes. This maximum is the equivalent of 70,000 barrels of oil. The West Coast’s response organization would be completely overwhelmed by a spill similar in scope (260,000 barrels spilled) to Exxon Valdez.”
Like many things Canadian, responsibility for oil spill cleanups involves a multi-tiered, multi-jurisdictional checkerboard. Federal and provincial governments share the responsibilities, but the Coast Guard, the provincial Ministry of Environment’s Emergency Program, Environment Canada, Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Wildlife Services, local municipalities and First Nations and even the Royal Canadian Navy must all be engaged, and most of these bodies will have a role or a say in spill response. With B.C. located between Washington State and Alaska, there are also trans-border considerations, and international co-operation responsibilities and agreements around spill response.
The B.C. Technical Analysis says that a December 2010 report from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, Oil Spills from Ships, found that on the federal side, risk assessments related to spills were incomplete, emergency management plans were out-of-date and there was no national approach to training, testing plans (exercises) and maintaining equipment. “These types of gaps make it difficult to fully assess the extent of spill management in Canada’s marine environment.”
Current levels of spill resources not adequate for projected capacity
Who is responsible for action in a spill recovery comes down to the details of each event. The federal government holds the constitutional authority for navigation and shipping, the province has the authority for management of provincial lands and resources. Provincial jurisdiction technically also expands into the inter-tidal zone (all land between the high and low tidal marks) as well as the seabed of the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, the Queen Charlotte Sound – Johnstone Strait and the coastal seabed between many of the major headlands along B.C.’s outer coast.
While WCMRC has a proven track record, perhaps the B.C. government has a point, in light of the proposed scope of added pipeline and tanker capacity, when its report says that greater clarity is required about existing marine spill management capacity in B.C. “A full assessment does not exist and is required in order to have a complete picture of government, industry and community expertise and resources.”
The government report suggests that at the current level of resourcing, B.C. spill response capability is likely not big enough to respond to growth in volume of spill, nor has the potential for handling concurrent major incidents. In a review of neighbouring states, Alaska has an operating budget of US$9 million, 82 staff members (36 emergency responders), and a US$50 million response account. Washington State operates with 70 staff members (28 emergency responders) an approximate US$12 million annual capital budget and a US$9 million response account.
In light of the scope of the proposed developments, according to its report, the Government of B.C. has already begun to work with the federal government to improve the capacity of marine spill response on the West Coast and ensure the highest level of spill preparedness on routes where oil is being transported either as a cargo or as a fuel.