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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Front falls off Fraser Institute tanker argument

In a November 24th opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun, Taylor Jackson and Kenneth Green ask: Ban on oil tankers? What happened to evidence-based policy? I’d love to take them out for a little boat ride from Kitimat through Dixon Entrance some time this month, for a reality check on their views on the science behind the North Coast tanker ban. Only a dedicated policy analyst sitting in the warm, dry confines of the Fraser Institute could have come up with the reality-starved thesis that there is no scientific rationale for banning tankers on B.C.’s North and Central Coast.

I remind readers that tankers were banned from this area following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and that ban, although not legislated, has been in continuous effect since that date. Put simply, we’ve had no oil tanker spills because we’ve had no oil tankers plying these waters. Traffic between Alaska and the Lower 48 states observes not only the ban, but an additional Voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone off the West Coast, designed to ensure that when the tankers lose power or steerage, they cannot be driven onto rocky shores by wind and waves.
A December excursion through Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance could be really enlightening for Taylor and Ken. December is the month most likely to see storm-force winds that can build in a matter of hours from nothing to 60 knots or more—which is to say, the wind can come up on a ship that has left port 18 hours earlier in fair weather, leaving it exposed and without a place of refuge.

Those winds often build the seas to heights of 18-20 metres—that’s about a six-storey building’s worth of water crashing down on the decks. The highest waves recorded in Hecate Strait are over 30 metres: more like a 10-storey building. In places along the proposed North Coast tanker route, there are also strong currents and when the wind meets a current going the other way, things get to be what mariners call “chaotic.” It’s a little different from the chaos at the Fraser Institute when a Liberal government gets elected. Things get broken.

Some of the things that could get broken in such seas are the thousands upon thousands of welds that hold double-hulled oil tankers together. A few tankers have gone that way, flexing in nasty seas until they just gave up; the ships broke into pieces and sank, spilling much of their cargo in the process. In 2010, 20 years after that particular design weakness was immortalized by the comedy team Clarke and Dawe in their sketch “The Front Fell Off”, the International Maritime Organization’s working group on oil tanker design came up with “goal based design criteria” to apply to tankers built after July 1, 2016: basically, an agreement that tankers ought to be designed such that their fronts won’t fall off. It is estimated that there are some 2,400 oil tankers in service that predate this breakthrough agreement.

In addition to the sciences behind meteorology and naval architecture, there’s also biology arguing in favour of a tanker ban on the North Coast: large ships are noisy beasts under normal operating conditions and the underwater acoustic disturbance is harmful to whales and other marine mammals. Six species of whales that are listed under the Species at Risk Act frequent the North and Central Coast. To the extent that the Canadian government has proceeded with recovery plans for them, those plans identify acoustic disturbance and ship strikes as threats to the species’ recovery. Adding ship traffic to this region, accidents or not, is bad news for whales.

Against these real-world considerations of navigation on the North and Central Coast, Fraser Institute policy analysts reference only global tanker safety statistics that are conspicuously not derived from traffic on our B.C. coast. I agree entirely with their assertion that tanker safety has improved over the past 30 years with the development of new technology. What I contest is the suggestion that this means oil tankers may safely ply all waters on the globe.