News / Vancouver

Pipelandia: Kinder Morgan tankers pit ‘world leading’ against ‘Titanic mentality’

As federal decision on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline looms, Metro asks if B.C.’s “five conditions” are met. Today, we look at oil tankers.

A climate change activist kayaks in front of an oil tanker in May 2016 in Burrard Inlet near Trans Mountain's Westridge Marine Terminal.

Contributed/Devyn Brugge

A climate change activist kayaks in front of an oil tanker in May 2016 in Burrard Inlet near Trans Mountain's Westridge Marine Terminal.

Capt. Chris Badger first went to sea in 1973.

In the Master Mariner’s 38 years on the world’s oceans — and until his retirement in 2011 as the Port of Vancouver’s chief operating officer — he’s seen oil tankers grow dramatically in size.

They could soon also grow much more frequent if the federal government approves Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, a decision due by Dec. 19.

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The proposal would increase oil tanker traffic through the Burrard Inlet seven-fold, to more than 400 ships a year. In 2012, Premier Christy Clark announced any pipeline would need to satisfy five conditions, the second being “world-leading” marine spill response.

But the spectre of a tanker accident has galvanized opposition to the project, despite Trans Mountain’s assurances that the risks are extremely low thanks to improved safety promises — according to the firm’s analysis, only one major spill is predicted in more than 2,000 years. Critics counter the chance of a spill is actually more than 80 per cent over 50 years.

Badger was in the business when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling more than 40 million litres of oil into Alaskan waters.

“Have there been emergencies on board vessels I’ve been on? Absolutely,” he said. “Vessels are no different than anything else: you can have fires, other ships doing risky things, these are all potential problems.

“But the Exxon Valdez was a single-hulled tanker. So it had one skin only when it ran aground. There’s not been one single spill from double-hulled tanker since 1990.”

The double-hulled ships, combined with Kinder Morgan’s promise to ensure loaded tankers are tethered to multiple tug boats through the inlet and escorted to open ocean, mean the chances of an accident are “highly improbable,” he argued.

The “state of the art” tugs, tethered with two cords, have “extremely powerful engines” with a propeller system that “basically swivels” under the hull, so they can push from any angle and even stop a ship, he said.

“If all the checks and balances are put in place,” he added, “all these things put in place, in my view, lower the probability considerably of there being an incident involving one of these tankers.”

Retired Capt. Chris Badger, Master Mariner and former chief operating officer of the Port of Vancouver, stands on a dock near his home on Vancouver Island.

Contributed/Trans Mountain

Retired Capt. Chris Badger, Master Mariner and former chief operating officer of the Port of Vancouver, stands on a dock near his home on Vancouver Island.

That’s little comfort to those concerned about a spill, however.

A City of Vancouver-commissioned report from York University disaster and emergency management professor David Etkin warned of what he called a “Titanic mentality,” or failure to anticipate unpredictable risks, of “low probability, high consequence events.”

“Unfortunately, there is a long history of catastrophes that were considered to be so implausible that they were not properly planned for,” he wrote in a 2015 submission to the National Energy Board. “The mentality is that failure is not possible because the system/ship/etc. has been designed so well. There is even a phrase for it in popular culture, called the ‘Titanic Mentality.’”

B.C. Premier Christy Clark said the federal government’s recent $1.5-billion five-year Coast Guard funding announcement addressed many shortfalls — safety “gaps” she’d previously described on Nov. 7 as leaving the province “cheated by the federal government for decades when it comes to adequate spill response.”

But the injection of federal cash only gets B.C. up to standard for its current shipping traffic — not with Kinder Morgan’s proposed increases, nor with the added risk of diluted bitumen, or dilbit, critics charge.

“There’s no technology to recover dilbit that’s sunk below the surface,” said Georgia Strait Alliance’s Alexandra Woodworth. “But no matter what kind of money the province and feds want to throw at this problem, there is no way to get there.

"A world-leading system is still not in place. (The Premier) promised to stand up for British Columians on this issue. This condition hasn’t been met on marine spills or response."

The “high consequence” outcome of a dilbit spill, however, would be dire — from the bottom of the food chain to the top, particularly for the Salish Sea's 80-strong southern resident orca population.

“The science shows they’re at a tipping point,” she said. “It’s very likely a single major spill would cause an extinction event over time."

On Monday, Clark said that federal funding “went a long way” to improving shipping safety, but “there is more that they need to do” to ensure it meets the definition of “world-leading” marine spill response.

“In our province, the most important element of this is making sure that our coast is protected from a catastrophic spill,” Clark told reporters in North Vancouver. “I think that’s going to be the area where the Prime Minister is going to have to put most of his focus to convince British Columbians, if he decides to approve it, that they’ve met our expectations.”

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