Oil opponents target tankers despite sparkling safety record

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, July 18, 2018
Oil opponents target tankers despite sparkling safety record

Opposition to oil production and oil tankers, in both British Columbia and Alberta, is nothing new. And it continues despite the Trudeau government’s $4.5 billion purchase of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion project.

And now, the federal government’s Bill C-48, which would slap a moratorium on most large oil tankers loading or unloading anywhere on Canada’s West Coast, threatens to further stifle tanker traffic carrying Alberta oil to more profitable markets in Asia and elsewhere. The bill has had its third reading in Parliament, and if approved in the Senate, will become law.

In Asia, Canadian oil can command a significantly higher price than when it’s sold into a glutted (and shrinking) American market. Bill C-48 does not only apply to bitumen, but to a broad range of what the bill classifies as “persistent oils—a category that goes well beyond bitumen to several fuel oils (including marine diesel oil and bunker oil). It also includes synthetic crude, lubricating oils, partially upgraded bitumen, heavy-blended fuel oils and even condensates needed to dilute bitumen to enable pipeline flow.

Post-Kinder Morgan pipeline purchase, the fight is expanding down into the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Indigenous protesters in Washington State are gearing up for a battle against tankers off their waters and the potential expansion of the Puget Sound pipeline (also now owned by the Canadian government). The Puget pipeline, which is a 111 kilometres long, diverts oil from the current Trans Mountain pipeline to four refineries in Washington. Activists in the state have declared this their “Standing Rock of the North,” referring to protests that delayed the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline for months.

For some much-needed perspective, let’s review some data on oil tankers, accidents and spills.

In the 1970s, there were on average 24.5 large spills (of more than 700 tonnes) per year globally. In the first four years of the 2010s, that number plummeted to an average of two large spills per year. The trend for medium-sized spills (7-700 tonnes) also declined sharply, from an average of 54.3 spills per year across the globe in the 1970s to an average of five per year during the first part of the 2010s.

Spill volumes also shrunk. Of all the oil spilled at sea from 1970 to 2009, 56.0 per cent was spilled in the 1970s, 20.5 per cent in the 1980s, 19.8 per cent in the 1990s, and only 3.7 per cent in the 2000s.

These safety improvements occurred when the amount of oil shipped by sea was increasing. In 1970, 1,207 million tonnes of loaded crude oil were transported by sea. This number increased to an estimated 1,710 million tonnes in 2014.

According to Transport Canada, there has only been one major oil spill in the last 20 years off Canada’s West Coast—and it happened when the Queen of the North ferry sank with 240 tonnes of oil on board.

Pipeline and tanker opponents are no doubt genuinely concerned about coastal contamination. And of course, environmental protection should be an important priority. However, arguments over building pipelines and increasing tanker traffic should be based on hard data that lets Canadians and policymakers evaluate risks and benefits, rather than the quasi-religious opposition to allowing Alberta’s oil to reach lucrative markets overseas. Data shows that both pipelines and tankers can operate safely, for the benefit of all Canadians.