Comment: Spill risks from Trans Mountain are too high

The National Energy Board review process for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline is now well underway.

If the project is approved, we would see an increase from 60 to more than 400 heavy oil tankers leaving Vancouver harbour each year. Those tankers would then pass around the tip of southern Vancouver Island, an area identified by the federal tanker safety expert panel as being one of the most high-risk areas in Canada for an oil spill.

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The thought of this enormous increase in tanker traffic alarms me, and I know I’m not alone. With more oil tankers comes more risk of an oil spill, one that could destroy our pristine coastline and devastate our local communities. The whole idea undermines Vancouver’s award-winning efforts to become the world’s greenest city by 2020.

That’s why I applied to be a full participant in the Kinder Morgan hearings. My constituents, and British Columbians across our province, will be affected by this pipeline and they deserve a voice in the process.

Two weeks ago, I joined dozens of other participants in submitting questions to Kinder Morgan on their application. With a 15,000-page application to review, and only one month to submit questions, I chose to start by analyzing Kinder Morgan’s evidence around oil spills: How likely are they? What impact will they have? And how effectively can we actually clean them up? I also asked about whether my constituents and others in the coastal communities were properly consulted, given the impact this project could have on their health and livelihoods.

I had nearly 500 questions on oil spills and consultation alone. Collectively, participants submitted thousands of questions on these and other topics as we try to better understand what this project will really mean for British Columbians.

Here are just a few examples of the areas I asked about:

• Federal studies clearly show that, unlike most other crude oils, the diluted bitumen Kinder Morgan will be transporting through its pipeline is so heavy that when it mixes with suspended particles in the ocean, it sinks. If there is one thing we have plenty of in our coastal waters, it is suspended sediments. Unfortunately, Kinder Morgan’s oil-spill response is based entirely on the faulty assumption that the spilled oil would float. How are they going to respond when it actually sinks?

• When assessing the impact of an oil spill and their ability to clean it up, Kinder Morgan based their projections on near-perfect conditions, including 20 hours of daylight, pristine weather with only minimal waves, the availability of all staff and equipment to respond, and of course, floating oil. They also assumed that they would have twice the response capacity available to them as currently exists. Despite these ideal circumstances, they predicted that only 45 per cent of the oil would be recovered. Even then, they acknowledge that their model isn’t consistent with historical averages (generally only five to 15 per cent of spilled oil is ever recovered). I asked Kinder Morgan to redo their model analysis to offer realistic projections, based on credible assumptions, so that we can know what to really expect.

• A typical heavy-oil tanker will carry more than 100,000 tonnes of oil. Yet in their analyses, Kinder Morgan assumed a worst-case scenario that only 16,500 tonnes would ever “credibly” spill at a time. That might be true according to Kinder Morgan’s calculations, but credible risk analyses consider the full range of scenarios, including one where the ship sinks and all of its oil is released. How can we know the full risk that comes with these tankers, if the worst-case scenario is excluded from consideration?

Ultimately, in applying to build their pipeline, Kinder Morgan is applying for a social licence from British Columbians. Earning that social licence begins with providing credible evidence that can stand up to thorough cross-examination.

Kinder Morgan has already advocated excluding oral cross-examination from the hearing process. Those who followed the Northern Gateway hearings know just how significant this change is.

What these points suggest is that Kinder Morgan’s submitted evidence is far from complete. After reading countless pages of documents, it’s pretty clear to me that neither Kinder Morgan, the scientific community nor the federal or provincial governments have even a cursory idea of what would happen in the case of a catastrophic diluted bitumen spill in our coastal waters.

It’s our coast, and we deserve better.


Andrew Weaver is the MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head.

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