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Douglas Channel, the proposed shipping route for crude oil supertankers in Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, is seen in this aerial view just south of Kitimat, B.C., Jan. 10, 2012. The proposed pipeline would ship Alberta oil sands crude 1,200 kilometres across Alberta and British Columbia to the northwest coast community of Kitimat, where the oil will be shipped overseas by oil tankers.

Supertankers can safely carry huge volumes of oil sands crude through the winding waterways that connect Kitimat, B.C., to the open Pacific, a federal review has concluded, giving a boost to efforts to build a new pipeline to the West Coast.

The review by Transport Canada examined the marine passages that would allow the proposed Enbridge Inc. Northern Gateway pipeline to export Alberta oil to buyers in China and California. That $6.6-billion project has become one of the country's most important industrial initiatives, backed by major energy producers and opposed by a raft of first nations and environmental groups.

Much of the opposition stems from concern over spills in the waters off Kitimat, which is connected to the Pacific through a series of channels and sounds that will take between 10 and 16 hours for a supertanker to navigate. These concerns have been heightened by the memory of the Exxon Valdez disaster, which devastated a similar coastal environment, and by several recent accidents in the region, including the 2006 sinking of the Queen of the North ferry.

Though the review was voluntary, it bears the imprimatur of the federal government, which is likely to carry substantial heft with the three-person Joint Review Panel examining the project. From that perspective, it is an important vote of confidence for Enbridge, which has long argued that it can safely move oil across the B.C. coast.

Gerald Graham, a marine policy consultant who has closely followed Gateway, said "it would be very surprising" if the panelists, "who do not appear to possess any expertise in the matter of marine terminals, oil tanker safety or shipping routes, were to second-guess Transport Canada and four other federal government departments."

In its review, Transport Canada said Enbridge must set weather limits for tanker traffic, and look for newly identified hazards in marine charts that are being updated with modern technology. But it concluded that "the proposed shipping routes are appropriate for the oil tankers that will be used at the proposed terminal. … There are no charted obstructions that would pose a safety hazard to fully loaded oil tankers."

The review points to a series of Enbridge safety pledges – including the use of tethered tugboats, the installation of new navigation aids and radar, and the vetting of vessels to ensure sub-standard ships aren't used – that go beyond current requirements.

Although "there will always be residual risk in any project," the reviewers found no concerns with the tankers that would be used, the way they would be operated, the routes they would sail or the traffic they would encounter.

"We're pleased to know that all the hard work we put in over the last couple of years has definitely met the needs of Transport Canada," said Janet Holder, the Enbridge executive in charge of Gateway. "We honestly did believe we had one of the best marine strategies there could be."

Yet such reassurances are unlikely to sway critics, especially on the B.C. coast, who say any spill risk is too much to bear, especially in a region where many still depend on marine life for food. They point to a number of safety concerns for the huge oil-carrying vessels, including narrow, rock-lined marine passages, the regular occurrence of severe weather – fog, raging winds, massive waves – and the lack of suitable shelter in a storm.

For example, only one anchorage point has been approved for supertankers along the route. Even the waters off Kitimat, where the ships would be loaded, don't offer enough room for a proper anchorage. Simulations conducted for Enbridge concluded that on some routes, tugboats would be unable to keep a safe grip on tankers in the event of strong winds, above 75 kilometres an hour. Indeed, in those conditions, tethering lines would be expected to snap.

"The bottom line is, [tankers would be]carrying a risky product, and one that could not be cleaned up on the coast," said Nikki Skuce, an energy campaigner with environmental group ForestEthics. "There's too much at stake."

Some of the tankers that would sail into Kitimat far exceed anything seen on the coast before. Until now, the largest vessels calling on that port have been 50,000-tonne tankers delivering condensate, an oil-thinning product imported to the oil sands. Even in Prince Rupert, which has open-water access, the largest vessels to date have been 250,000-tonne carriers.

The Gateway project would bring a total of 250 new vessels a year. Proposed new natural gas terminals could bring that total to 415 "additional oil tankers, liquefied natural gas carriers and bulk carriers calling at Kitimat, or 830 additional transits of the waterways," Transport Canada found.