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Friday, January 20, 2012

Northern Gateway and tanker risks

Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway project is about more than just pipelines and tar sands. What sets this project apart from others, is oil tankers. Really big oil tankers.

Northern Gateway is really a tanker-pipeline megaproject. If approved, it will bring 225 crude oil tankers to Canada’s Pacific North Coast for the first time in order to ship the world’s dirtiest oil to markets in Asia. These tankers are the length of three and a half football fields and carry nearly eight times more oil than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. Introducing them to Canada’s Pacific North Coast is not a good idea. Why you ask? Here are a few reasons:

Accidents happen
Despite safety plans and modern technology, accidents happen. Think BP. Or, more recently, look at Rena, a container ship currently in two on the rocks in New Zealand, or the cruise ship tragedy currently unfolding on the banks of Italy. Perhaps the CEO of Enbridge, Pat Daniel, has summed up the situation best when he said: “Can we promise there will never be an accident? No. Nobody can.”

Enbridge has proposed an incredibly challenging route. Hurricane force winds and 10 meter seas are not uncommon. Hecate Strait, a major section of the route, is considered the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world. Tankers would have to navigate through confined channels rife with rocky shoals and unmarked hazards and complete difficult manoeuvres in order to wind their way past the many islands along the route. It’s a task that has failed before. In 2006 the state-of-the-art passenger ferry Queen of the North missed a turn and crashed into Gil Island, a major obstacle in the middle of Enbridge’s proposed path. Tragically, two lives were lost in the incident and the vessel is still leaking fuel to this day.

It would only take one simple mistake in navigation and the coast could be coated in oil for years. The narrow channels in this area (some less than 1.5km wide) don’t allow much room for error. A loaded tanker takes 2km to come to a complete stop, even with the assistance of an escort tug.

We can’t clean up oil spills
When oil spills, it’s near impossibly to completely clean up. Typically only 10 to 15 per cent of spilled oil can be recovered, even in ideal weather conditions, with well-equipped crews onsite. 23 years later, oil is still found on the beaches in Prince William Sound thanks to the Exxon Valdez. Enbridge’s proposed project area is also extremely remote and severe weather is the norm – both inhibiting factors in successful response. What’s worse is that the Canadian Coast Guard, the lead government agency responsible for responding to an oil spill, is not adequately prepared to deal with oil spills. Period.

Canadian taxpayers could be on the hook for billions
You’d think that since Enbridge is a multi-national oil corporation they’d have to chip in a few bucks to fund oil spill response. Not so. When it comes to tankers Enbridge has no liability or responsibility whatsoever. Should an oil spill from a tanker occur, Enbridge is absolved from all risk and could happily watch from the shoreline.

It is the ship owner – most likely a company from Asia – that will be responsible for the first $140 million in cleanup and compensation costs. After that, the Canadian government will have to take on responsibility. They can access approximately $1.3 billion dollars from international funds, but once that money is exhausted, the rest with come from general revenue. I.e. tax dollars. $1.3 billion sounds like a lot, but lower estimates for Exxon were $3.5 billion. Some estimates are as high as $9 billion. That’s at least $2 billion dollars that would come from Canada for one spill. $2 billion from our pockets for oil we aren’t even using.

We have a lot to lose
British Columbia has a $1.2 billion-a-year fishery on the coast. There are 11,000 commercial fisheries jobs, and approximately 10,000 jobs in the cruise ship and recreational tourism sectors at risk. In contrast, Enbridge’s project will create approximately 200 long term jobs along the entire pipeline route and at the marine terminal where the tankers will be loaded.

Oh, and of course there’s the tremendously unique, beautiful, awe-inspiring ecosystem that is home to some of the world’s most important bird areas, world-renowned whale populations, thriving wild salmon rivers, Spirit Bears, and the like. What isn’t at risk here?

Katie Terhune is the Energy Campaign Manager for Living Oceans Society.

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