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Cleaning up a heavy oil spill on the BC Coast: The Trans Mountain capacity


This post is part of an ongoing series in which MLA Andrew Weaver will be sharing key information from inside the National Energy Board hearings on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline proposal. To see previous posts, please click here. 


If Kinder Morgan builds its pipeline, the number of oil tankers passing by our cities and along our coast will increase by almost 600%.

With every tanker comes the risk of an oil spill. I therefore want to take some time to discuss how we would clean up a spill. In particular, since Trans Mountain is required by the National Energy Board to show how it would respond to a spill, I think it is important to see what they are proposing.

The Current Oil Spill Response Capacity

To understand Kinder Morgan’s proposal, we first need to understand the current standards. Unfortunately, a study commissioned by the B.C. government last year showed just how woefully inadequate our current standards are.

Oil spill response in B.C. is managed by the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC). WCMRC is required to be able to respond to a spill that is as large as 10,000 tonnes of oil. This may seem like a lot, but to put it in context the Exxon Valdez oil spill was 40,000 tonnes and a single tanker will be carrying over 100,000 tonnes of oil.

Not only that, but the fact that WCMRC is able to respond to a 10,000 tonne spill does not actually mean it is able to recover the full 10,000 tonnes. In fact, according to the Federal Tanker Safety Expert Panel, “Evidence suggests that mechanical recovery rates, in optimal conditions, are usually only between 5% and 15% of the oil spilled.” This is because despite existing equipment, it’s often hard to contain and recover spilled oil.

So where does this leave Kinder Morgan?

Kinder Morgan’s Enhanced Spill Response Capacity

As a part of their application, Kinder Morgan is proposing to improve on current standards. In their “Future Oil Spill Response Approach Plan” Kinder Morgan proposes increasing WCMRC’s capacity so that it can respond to a 20,000 tonne spill. It also proposes reducing response times so that WCMRC would get to a spill site quicker and start cleaning it up before more of the oil has had a chance to spread. Implementing this enhanced response plan would likely be costly—it would require additional personnel, equipment, staging locations, etc.

It’s certainly a step in the right direction. But here’s the catch.

First of all, Kinder Morgan does not have direct control over whether this plan is implemented or not. They have worked with WCMRC to develop the proposal, but ultimately, it will be up to WCMRC and federal legislation to determine what the standards are. If standards are not legislated federally, then the WCMRC will have a harder time justifying the costs to the companies that fund it (including Kinder Morgan). You therefore cannot evaluate the risks and impacts associated with the pipeline on the assumption that this proposal will be implemented. There is simply no guarantee.

Not only that, but this plan still falls far short of what is needed to cover the risks of the project. A single tanker will carry over 100,000 tonnes of oil. Kinder Morgan itself has acknowledged that according to its own calculations there is a 10% probability that a spill will be larger than 16,500 tonnes. Cleanup capacity for anything beyond 20,000 tonnes will be significantly delayed while resources are brought in from other areas. Any delay, as Kinder Morgan has noted, will decrease the effectiveness of recovery efforts as oil spreads beyond containment areas.

Finally, I have already talked about the Federal Government studies that show that diluted bitumen—the heavy oil that would be transported by tanker—sinks in the presence of suspended particles. Unfortunately, Kinder Morgan has not proposed any capacity to clean-up sunken oil. I believe that this is simply unacceptable.

I’m glad that Kinder Morgan is making an effort to propose an enhanced oil spill response capacity. Given that they have been loading oil tankers on our coast for year now, this effort is long overdue. Unfortunately, it also comes up short of anything that can truly be called “effective”.

3 Comments

  1. Jane PAPP-
    December 11, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Besides filling out your survey, what more can I/we do to stand up against the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Burnaby Mountain pipeline? I am prepared to put some money somewhere, but can’t figure out how my anti oil dollars will go the farthest. I am happy to protest and write the Federal and Provincial government. there must be more that I can do!
    Please advise.

    • December 11, 2014 at 6:55 pm

      Hello Jane, the survey helps me with my intervention process. In terms of what an individual can do, I would suggest you contact the Dogwood Initative. They are running a number of campaigns with respect to the Trans Mountain pipeline. They are an incredibly effective organization.

    • December 12, 2014 at 12:00 pm

      Jane PAPP,

      If you want your money to go far and be used for the ultimate purpose of ‘weaning us off of oil’ you might consider my “Solution to Pollution” project.

      Because with this technology proven and with it being on the market, the consumer demand for the 25% savings in fuel would drive production and motivate installation.

      This is a “CONVERSION system” for any existing internal combustion engine; where the ‘heat ENERGY released’ during combustion is used to do more work through providing more ‘torque out-put’ out of the same amount of fuel.

      But … even more importantly … for the consumer to ‘get’ the 25% increase in fuel energy efficiency the system must be complete including … the “Steam Reclaim Section” where the water which was originally injected to produce steam out of the heat is reclaimed and recycled for reintroduction into the motor.

      It is during this “Condensation” out of the exhaust gases that the “Acid Rain” producing GHG’s are removed by ‘condensation’ just like it does from our atmosphere only happening here while the combustion gases are still in the exhaust system.

      A final point; this was designed, invented, and tested by me ‘on my own’ to the degree I could afford to do over the last half of my life [since 1981] … or 33 years but now it is critical that we complete this … because Global Warming is not waiting and neither can we.

      This is the ‘campaign’ which you could ‘under-write’ which … IMHO … would make the biggest difference to our planet.
      http://ensensesolutions.com/our-campaign