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The Aqualegend crude oil tanker is escorted by tugboats as it arrives at Kinder Morgan’s Westridge marine terminal in Burnaby, B.C., in July. Kinder Morgan plans to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline and ship much more crude from Vancouver.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

It is a sunny Sunday and Vancouver is doing what it does best: looking pretty and post-industrial. Morning lights up the downtown's glass horizon. A half-dozen scooters rip down the road in a platoon. Cyclists swish past Zipcar lots, kayakers and stand-up paddle surfers ply the waters.

But just a few kilometres away, an oil tanker is preparing to raise anchor and slide into port. Soon, it will open its holds, with a total capacity of 650,000-barrels, to a flush of Alberta oil. After 30 hours of pumping, it will slip away to Long Beach, Calif. Oil tankers are, for now, relatively rare here. A tanker sails into the Vancouver harbour about once a week, docking at the Kinder Morgan-owned Westridge Terminal to accept Alberta crude flowing across the Rockies in the Trans Mountain pipeline.

On this day, it is the 250-metre long Aqualegend that glides into place, smoothly manoeuvring alongside the Kinder Morgan dock. Its deck is spotless enough to eat off. The waters alongside the dock are clear and blue; a harbour patrol vessel has to ask crabbers to make way so the tanker can dock. Under blue skies and sunshine, exporting oil seems safe – even easy.

For Canada's energy industry, however, the tanker route through the North Pacific is likely to be anything but.

The Aqualegend is a glimpse of what is to come: a future that could see a tanker sail past downtown Vancouver almost every day, to pick up oil from a newly expanded Trans Mountain. Kinder Morgan intends to twin the line, allowing 750,000 barrels a day – more than double the current 300,000 – to flow west. Most of the new barrels will be loaded on tankers. The project stands to change Alberta, making it an important global oil player. By placing crude on tankers that can deliver product anywhere a ship can sail, the oil industry can grab hold of global prices rather than selling its product on the cheap to its principal export market, the over-supplied U.S. Midwest. Expanding Trans Mountain stands to change Canada as well, enabling an expansion of the oil sands that will allow years of growth.

And Trans Mountain would change British Columbia's Lower Mainland as well. Vancouver – home of the Prius taxi – could one day become Canada's Rotterdam, a major oil tanker hub.

Yet the $4.1-billion project's tremendous economic potential comes against a question mark nearly as big: is it even possible to build the expansion against rising anxiety that oil shipments will stain the shores of one of Canada's biggest metropolitan areas?

Much rides on that question for Alberta's energy industry. Take just one company: by 2020, Cenovus Energy Inc. intends to sell nearly 1 million barrels a day, most of them from projects not yet operating. It needs to find a home for those barrels, and the Kinder Morgan project is central to its plans. Already, the company is seeing a substantial lift in price for the barrels it is pumping through the existing Trans Mountain pipe and selling on the international market.

The Kinder Morgan project, in part because of its location, will likely send most of its crude to California, although some may also flow to Asia. For oil companies such as Cenovus, the destination doesn't matter. Oil is often sold at the dock, and the price there is the international price, no matter where the crude ends up. To "unlock the value" of Canada's crude oil, that product has to touch tidewater, says Paul Reimer, senior vice-president of marketing, transportation and power at Cenovus.

The stakes, then, are high for Kinder Morgan. In some ways, Canada's global industrial position depends on this pipeline.

"More market connections increase our global competitiveness and position us to better receive full market value for our growing production," says Patti Lewis, spokeswoman for Nexen Inc., which has been a supporter of the Kinder Morgan expansion. Ms. Lewis spoke before Nexen agreed to be bought out by China's state-controlled CNOOC Ltd. for $15.1-billion, a deal that underscores the growing connections between Canadian crude reserves and Chinese energy ambitions.

First, though, Kinder Morgan must find a way to sail huge new volumes of oil beneath Vancouver's Lions Gate Bridge and past Stanley Park, a jewel not just for B.C., but the entire country. And the anger that has met Enbridge Inc.'s plans to build the Northern Gateway export pipeline to Kitimat, on the B.C. north coast, is already beginning to simmer against Kinder Morgan. The company has yet to formally apply for the project – that should happen next year – and to publish a map of exactly where the new pipe would run.

Already, the mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby have spoken out against it, as have local first nations. The B.C. government has published a lengthy technical document demanding substantial upgrades to tanker safety along its coast.

Neither the ruling B.C. Liberals nor the opposition NDP, who appear headed to take over in Victoria next year, have declared a public position on the Trans Mountain expansion, but the tiff between the Alberta and B.C. premiers over Northern Gateway seems poised to envelop Trans Mountain as well.

In case of accident

Before the Aqualegend, now loaded with Canadian crude, can so much as untie from the Kinder Morgan dock, it must meet an extraordinary set of demands. Loaded tankers are treated unlike any other vessel in Vancouver, starting with the two specially trained marine pilots they must have aboard, double the normal requirement. They can sail only during daylight, at high slack water, a window that on some days allows just 25 minutes for them to move. They must travel through a clear channel, meaning other ships must wait. Each tanker is first vetted for admissibility by Transport Canada, pre-screened by Kinder Morgan – which denies entry to ships that don't meet its standards, including one that they must be less than 20 years old – and then inspected after entry by Transport Canada. Where other large vessels must only be accompanied by an untethered tug, a loaded tanker must sail with three tugs connected to it by thick metal cables.

Some of the requirements are new, intended to build on a nearly unblemished record of oil moving through these waters.

"We have never had an accident with a tanker. Not in 60 years," says Kevin Obermeyer, chief executive officer of Pacific Pilotage Authority Canada.

But spills do happen. Since 2001 – the only period for which it could provide records – Transport Canada has recorded some 13 incidents with oil and chemical tankers in waters near Vancouver. The worst, in 2002, saw 2,300 litres of canola oil spill. In total, over the past decade, 31 litres of petroleum has spilled in the area. But those are minor, and nothing like the Exxon Valdez spill whose memory, and ongoing environmental damage, haunts any new attempts to carry oil along the West Coast. Kinder Morgan is eager to make clear how much has changed since that 1989 disaster.

With the "Exxon Valdez, there were no escort tugs, a single-hull ship, no pilots on board," Kinder Morgan Canada director of engineering Mike Davies says. Tankers today do not suffer those weaknesses, and the changes "make quite a difference," Mr. Davies says.

When critics accuse Kinder Morgan of pursuing a risky expansion, the company details the long list of safeguards in place – enough, the company says, that a reasonable person should have little reason for worry.

Oil shipping, Mr. Davies says, is "a highly regulated industry, the people are well-trained and there's lots of scrutiny of everything that goes on."

That's not to mention the cleanup capability on the West Coast if disaster strikes. Barely a kilometre from the Kinder Morgan dock is the headquarters for the industry-funded Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which has equipment scattered up and down the coast and a video library showing every single kilometre of B.C. shoreline, which can be used to focus a spill response. WCMRC must, by federal mandate, be prepared to clean up a 10,000-tonne, or 63,000-barrel, spill. It has 2.5 times the capacity it needs, with resources across B.C. that include 118 fishermen and barge operators trained to help.

Around Vancouver alone, it has more than five times the skimming capacity it needs for a 63,000 barrel spill.

"This coast is, I would say, in pretty good shape right now," says Kevin Gardner, president of the response organization.

Living with the line

Derek Corrigan, mayor of the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, does not like the oil industry. He doesn't like how its big multinational players seem unusually capable of profit. He doesn't like how its sweeping size and importance gives it influence with government. And he doesn't like how it is looking to build a pipeline through his hometown, where he has served as mayor for a decade.

"Not for a moment do I trust this industry," he says. "Early on, the promises are wonderful and the infrastructure is new." But give it a few years and companies, he says, begin to "slack off."

Mr. Corrigan has first-hand experience. He was mayor when a city contractor hit Kinder Morgan's pipeline, resulting in a geyser that sprayed out nearly 1,500 barrels of oil, some of which made it into Burrard Inlet. A report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada found that the pipe had not been properly located for the city and, while the blame did not fall entirely on Kinder Morgan, the company compounded the resulting rupture by shutting the wrong valve when it tried to halt the leaking.

In 2009, oil also spilled from a Kinder Morgan oil terminal in Burnaby; Environment Canada said the government does not know how much leaked.

For those who live along the pipeline, those accidents provide a glimpse into a possible future that terrifies them. Local groups have pointed to studies questioning Canada's spill response – a Canadian cleanup fund has half the money contained in its U.S. counterpart, for example, and though the Canadian Coast Guard is supposed to be the lead federal agency in responding to spills, many of its vessels aren't equipped with spill gear. While the tug requirements are strict in Vancouver harbour, they are less strict outside of the harbour than in U.S. waters just to the south. Recent government changes haven't helped, either: a Vancouver-based Environment Canada emergency response office was closed and its responsibilities shifted to Montreal, fact that concerns spill responders.

And both Canadian and international laws place strict limits on financial liability for spills from tankers, whose owners – usually headquartered in distant countries – are held responsible. Those limits vary by product and vessel, but top out at just over $1.3-billion, far below the cost of cleaning up major accidents like the Exxon Valdez or the BP Macondo well – and even a smaller accident could prove immensely costly to clean alongside densely populated Vancouver.

That concern has driven an increasingly concerted effort by first nations to thwart the project. The final stretches of Trans Mountain cross particularly tricky territory, claimed by four first nations. Three have already publicly opposed the expansion, including, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, whose land lies across Burrard Inlet from the Kinder Morgan dock and whose front yards look out on the water where tankers anchor. It is not a nation opposed to development: it has profited from hundreds of condominium units built on its one-mile-square reserve. But the last two Kinder Morgan spills have sent a pungent smell over Tsleil-Waututh land – and the nation, which stands to see no benefits from the expansion, is firmly against it.

If a spill happens, it could devastate "the coastline from Washington to the top of Vancouver Island," says Ernie George, director of Treaty Lands and Resources. He points to dozens of projects undertaken by the nation to restore ecosystem function and marine life populations to the area.

"We're trying to bring this inlet back to life," he says. More oil "won't help."

Beyond the water, the pipeline itself is controversial. The Trans Mountain pipeline was built in the early 1950s, entering operation in 1954. A half-century has dramatically changed the land it crosses: Burnaby alone has quadrupled in size since then. To make the point, Kennedy Stewart, the NDP MP for the Burnaby region home to the pipeline, tank terminal and marine dock, directs a weaving route on roads that follow the yellow signs marking the pipeline's underground path. It crosses beneath sidewalks, beside roads, past schools, through a golf course and beneath landscaped gardens. At an apartment co-op, Mr. Stewart gets out to walk, showing where it runs mere feet from backyard play sets.

Kinder Morgan has said it "will look at alternatives" in areas where buildings have cropped up close to the route. But Mr. Kennedy calls the pipeline right-of-way a "potential expropriation zone," since people might be forced out of their homes if they stand in the way. It is, he acknowledges, an inflammatory description, but the rhetoric is intended to echo in Ottawa, as West Coast pipelines take on national importance.

That's true for the environmental groups, too. Kinder Morgan has split its application into several parts, first working to establish tolls for the expansion. That application would normally concern only oil companies and refineries. But Vancouver's Ecojustice, an environmental law firm, has drafted a letter it hopes municipalities, first nations and landowners will submit to the National Energy Board, in hopes they can argue for higher tolls to cover the cost of cleaning spills.

"It's a bit novel and it's not been tried before," says Karen Campbell, a staff lawyer with the firm. "But we're trying to figure out how to shine a brighter spotlight on this entire issue – and, frankly, how to slow it all down."

Yet for all the concern, fighting this pipeline may prove difficult. Burnaby, for one, acknowledges there is little it can do, outside of helping stir up opposition. Kinder Morgan already has its dock, and substantial legal rights to the land where its pipe lies.

"It's a 60-year pipeline on an existing right of way. They've had tankers there for years," Ms. Campbell says. Compared to the battle over Northern Gateway, an entirely new pipe that would introduce tankers to waters that see very little oil movement today, fighting Kinder Morgan "is way harder."



They are a rare bunch: the 100 men tasked with guiding ships safely through the coastal waters of British Columbia. In many ways, the safety of the vessels that sail on Canada's Pacific coast lies in their hands.

So it's small wonder becoming a pilot isn't easy. It involves writing what Kevin Obermeyer, who oversees the pilots as chief executive officer of Pacific Pilotage Authority Canada, calls "one of the hardest exams in the world."

Don't believe him? Take a look and see for yourself. Those winding black lines show coastal features and islands. But it is intentionally blank. The test: first determine which of the 27,000 kilometres of B.C. coast the blank map depicts. Then label it, with the names of islands and points and inlets, showing where navigational aids are located, marking hazards, noting minimum depths and pencilling in safe routes. That's just one part. Another involves starting with a completely blank page. Would-be pilots have to draw from memory whichever stretch of coast the examiner asks for.

Just getting in to write the exam is tough: only those with more than 700 12-hour days as captains on the B.C. coast can start the process, which begins with a familiarization program, where candidates must ride along on at least 10, and sometimes 30, trips.

Even then, fully 83 per cent fail the written test, where they need a 70-per-cent grade to pass.

Mr. Obermeyer points to those entry requirements as part of the reason why last year, with 12,400 vessel movements that had pilots on board, "we had four minor fender benders."

"I'm supremely confident in their knowledge and their ability," he says.

Nathan VanderKlippe

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