Getting oil from Kitimat to the open ocean: Can we do that?

I’m looking to tap the brainpower of the blogosphere for a very specific question:

Can we safely move oil from Kitimat, B.C., down the Douglas Channel, and into the open Pacific Ocean?

An animated scene from Enbridge's promotional video, shows a tanker travelling through the Douglas Channel out of Kitimat, B.C.

Of course, this is just one of the crucial questions at stake in the ongoing hearing for the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the pipeline that would take bitumen from the oil sands in northern Alberta over the Rockies to the northern B.C. port of Kitimat where the bitumen would be loaded on to tankers that are up to 350 m long. All and any tankers loading up with oilsands bitumen would be double-hulled, Enbridge says, and would be assigned two tugboats at all times — one of which would be physically tethered to the tanker — during its passage down the Douglas Channel and out into the open ocean. A pilot, certified by the B.C. government, would be in charge of the tanker during this transit.

One other point: Tankers filled with petrochemical products have, according to Enbridge, been travelling the Douglas Channel for 25 years without incident.

So, from my viewpoint in Ottawa, the proposal to move Alberta bitumen down this channel seems to be a reasonable one.  I’m looking for those who can see some problems with the tanker proposal. I’m not looking for arguments about the whole philosophy of the oilsands; oilsands GGEs vs conventional oil GGEs; problems with the pipeline route etc. For this exercise, let’s assume that the entire world is agreed that we need to get Alberta oil to China and that the pipeline route and technology is fine. Making those assumptions: is this a safe way to get the bitumen from Canada to foreign export markets?

Please watch the video from Enbridge, the company behind the pipeline proposal, before responding for it contains important information about this issue and I’m just as keen to hear your thoughts about Enbridge’s ideas.



20 thoughts on “Getting oil from Kitimat to the open ocean: Can we do that?”

  1. That strait is narrow and not as good as Prince Rupert. Me, I prefer Prince Rupert as the terminal location. But is there any room left there for a bitumen terminal?

  2. Thanks, Dennis: How do you know it’s narrow? Can you provide a link? Are you a pilot? The Enbridge promo video says it’s a minimum of 2 km wide and 500 m deep at all points. Are they wrong? Can you prove they’re wrong? Is 2 km wide enough?

  3. David, have you independently verified the Enbridge proposal? If not, why would you choose to present it as one side of the argument when they are so clearly not a neutral party in this discussion. Your ability to draw an audience now amplifies the biased position of Enbridge without adding one iota of knowledge to the discussion.

  4. Enbridge’s video is selective: it focusses on the CCAA ( Confined Channel Assessment Area ) and not the OWA ( Open Water Area ). They really only submitted plans for the OWA after objections were made to the limited scope of their OWA project area.

    I’ve also argued many a time that risk equals probability times consequences. Thus, while the chances of a spill in the OWA might be small, since the consequences of a spill in that area could be great ( It’s a much bigger area than the CCAA, the bitumen could spread more, winds could send it in all directions, much more coastline could be potentially effected, there are higher winds in the area, etc. ), then the risk of a tanker incident in the OWA might still be unacceptable overall. In other words, focussing on statistical probability alone does not give a true picture of overall exposure to risk.

    Another important element of risk is tolerance. Coastal First Nations have zero tolerance for risk, and so no amount of benefit is going to persuade them to go along with this project.

    As for the point about safety, the chances of a spill are somewhere between nil ( what some shipping officials have argued ) and inevitable ( what many ENGOs argue ). My own professional opinion is that they are both wrong, and that the real chances lie somewhere between the two extremes. There only needs to be one spill for ENGOs to be proved right, and the shipping industry to be proved wrong. But the issue really is: how great a spill, where, when, how effective will cleanup be, what might the damages be, etc. Nobody really knows the answer to these questions, and anyone who tells you they do is mistaken, I’m afraid. A spill could happen on day one, or it could never happen. We just don’t know.

    One of the questions is, then, are we as a society prepared to take the risk, given all these uncertainties, and who decides one way or the other? And should Coastal First Nations, the ones in the direct line of fire and this most likely to be affected by a spill, have veto power over this project?

  5. Dilbit (not oil) cannot be transported by pipeline or Supertanker without spillage and environmental disaster.

    Enbridge plans to transport @500,000 barrels of Dilbit a day to Kitimat. Their claim is 99.9% will get there. Unless my math skills are very bad that means @500 barrels a day, every day of the year, every year of pipeline use will be spilled. That is not safety that is controlled disaster.

    As for moving Dilbit safely by supertanker… Enbridge claims it is safe but states absolutely that once it leaves the terminal it is no longer their responsibility. It is simply a mathematical certainty that a supertanker will loose all or part of its load. When and where are the questions not ‘if’.

    I also wish that you would get your terms straight. Enbridge will be transporting DILBIT not oil. Dilbit is a slurried Bitumen that unlike oil sinks in water and is absorbed by soil. Absorbed so well that the Enbridge plan to ‘mop up’ a spill involves torching the entire area.

  6. Yes, billions of barrels are moved every year with little loss. A 2km wide channel is wide. All kinds of freighters (that’s all a tanker is) travel through much narrower channels daily. Some 30 miles west of Kingston, Ontario there’s a body of water called Adolphus reach which starts out with a width of 7/8 of a mile then narrows where the Glenora Ferry crosses. Ships use a north channel, middle channel and south channel and share the space with thousands of sailboats and cruisers. Never been a grounding or a collision in the many decades of freighter traffic.

    A full tanker is worth a lot of money to the owner of the cargo and the ship. Exxon Valdez opened eyes and changed hull designs and HR screening of ship personnel. Many ships have travelled the Douglas Channel with many cargoes for many years. Safe as it gets.

  7. David,

    Here in Japan they have points that are 2km and hundreds of ships moving through under bridges and such. Keeping an eye on things is very stressful and there has been accidents. For cargo ships and supertankers 2km is very little room to maneuver. This means that the port pilots will have to mind their P’s and Q’s and keep wary. Manageable but one where you have lazy people doing the management.

  8. First off, this video says the Douglas Cannel is 2 km wide. At one point it is only 1 km wide. That is only 3 times the length of a VLCC. Secondly, there has only been identified, 1 safe anchorage outside the Douglas Channel. With the increase of naval traffic in the channel, LNG carriers, Bauxite carriers and other coastal traffic, bringing in 250+ Very Large Crude Carriers into the mix is most likely a recipe for disaster. It means there would be several ships passing each other during the transit of the Douglas Channel. No, emphatically, do I believe we can safely ship Diluted Bitumen via the Douglas Channel. Has Enbridge even tried it with a Ballasted VLCC? Not once, let alone 250 times. If they proved it, people may start to get on board.

  9. kitimat is scheduled to have 2-3 LNG plants as well bringing with it 200-300 LNG tankers for each plant. Enbridge claims they will have nearly 300 supertankers as well. So 1000 or more tankers will be plying the waters of the douglas channel every year, year round. Thus increasing the risk of collision or chance of being caught in one of the many powerful storms that frequent our coast. If want to know if a disaster is possible? I would say it is imminent, human error is a given and with little more than 2km of room to make a correction. I would say that disaster is likely.

    And the subject of the tankers already bringing condensate to kitimat via our channel. This is true, but they are much smaller and are not the VLC that enbridge is proposing to use. So using this as an example is not a true comparison.

    I haved lived in Kitimat for 30 years and have seen some very intense weather that lasts for days on end. Conditions that are not suitable for humans to safely work in. If something were to happen during one of these common events nothing could be done to stop a tanker from breaking up on the rocks or cleaning up much of the leaked oil. It would be a disaster of massive proportion.

    I am not a pilot or a captain, but I have spent my entire life working and playing on the ocean. I have a massive amount of respect for it, the sea is extremely unforgiving. Under normal circumstances, in a perfect world I would agree that it is possible to move oil this way. But in the real world, this is just tempting fate.

    unfortunately greed and shortsightedness usually prevail, and the true costs of this project will only be known to my children.

  10. The 99.9 figure is just an approximation and the process by necessity creates evaporation, sublimation, and condensation and these things subtract from 100%. It’s not as if the difference is a spill on the ground. In proportion, filling your tank with gasoline is probably 99.9 of what the measured volume because of these same inherent inefficiencies.

  11. If the question is “Can we safely move oil from Kitimat, B.C., down the Douglas Channel, and into the open Pacific Ocean?” then this is your answer coming from an indisputable source;

    To David Akin with respect; You question poster Dennis Sells knowledge of this area and this link to a marine captain’s letter will give you all the answers you need. If you question this mans credentials as to being an expert on this subject then I have to question your intent on asking the question. I hope everyone who doesn’t live in this area who are questioning why people here are so concerned will take our concerns seriously. We live here and understand the terrain. You don’t and don’t have your whole life invested in the situation. We do.

  12. Dan, what you are asking, and you are no different than anybody else, any passenger per se, what you asking is like asking your airplane captain if you can fly through that thunderstorm over there. The answer is unquestionably, yes.

  13. I can whip out my phone and within seconds locate my Smart car to within a few meters of the 7-11. And we can’t navigate a tanker down a 2km wide channel? As for some of these ‘traffic’ concerns, they’ll be pumping say 500,000 barrels a day. That’s ONE tanker every FOUR days. Hardly grid-lock.
    Human error (more like stupidity) is the only real danger as two of the most notable ‘big ship’ accidents involved a captain who was drunk (Exxon Valdez) and one who was high (Costa Concordia). Still, with todays technology this should be no problem, I would be more concerned about leaks from the pipeline itself, not the shipping.

  14. I don’t doubt that there is a risk to moving oil from Kitimat through the Douglas Channel, there is always risk when transporting any product through sensitive areas and can accidents happen, probably: But the steps taken seem to alleviate any high risk accidents that may happen: The double hulled tankers, extra tugs and qualified BC government approved pilots will again alleviate these problems. Considering that in the past 25 – 30 years there has never been an oil spill in this area the extra measures taken would be a definite improvement. If one was to look at the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the problem there was not due to faulty equipment i.e. ships and tugs but to an incompentent captain.

  15. Rich, there’s just nothing getting past you, is there? Outside of all the really excellent information provided by the author of this blog, one of the most glaring omissions by almost all parties promoting this project is the sheer SIZE of these tankers they want to bring in. One of those breaking up will have no resemblance to Valdez or anything else. And its the sheer SIZE of the whole thing that has me quite literally shuddering. Oh, and the nature of the product Enbridge wishes to transport as well. It is my understanding that there is no known way to effectively clean up BITUMEN. It is NOT crude oil. Far from it. Have we not yet learned anything? Do we still feel NO sense of responsibility toward our four-footed and finned brethren? Or even our children, and our neighbors? Think of the whales we go to great lengths to rescue from fishing nets and beaching. No way to save them from bitumen. At this point the Feds are cutting all kinds of oversight and regulatory offices in BC. Why? Only Harper knows, and it scares me to death. Thank you for this most excellent article, good to see some intelligent and knowledgeable information.

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