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Washington’s border waters are on the cusp of a major rise in oil tanker traffic

Completion of a Canadian pipeline expansion means more crude-carrying vessels passing through the Salish Sea en route to the Pacific, raising spill fears.

By TOM BANSE, Washington State Standard
Published: April 29, 2024, 2:28pm

A significant increase in oil tanker traffic is in store for the Salish Sea with the completion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion in British Columbia.

The project triples the volume of Alberta crude the pipeline can carry to an export terminal in Burnaby near Vancouver, British Columbia. The facility now sends out an average of five loaded tankers per month. The expansion aims to raise the pace to one vessel per day. The oil-filled ships pass by the San Juan Islands and Olympic Peninsula as they head out to sea.

Increased oil spill risks in shared waters, disturbances to endangered orcas and other whales and climate change impacts are among the worries the pipeline expansion has stoked across the border in Washington. The Canadian project inspired repeated protests from Puget Sound tribes, Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. But they were all powerless to stop it.

“Anytime you move oil from one place to another, that presents a risk of an oil spill,” said Lovel Pratt, marine protection and policy director for Friends of the San Juans in Friday Harbor. “Oil knows no boundaries. The oil goes wherever the water takes it regardless of the border. We’re all at risk when an oil spill occurs.”

The operator of the Canadian government-owned pipeline, Trans Mountain Corporation, contends expanded oil exports can be done responsibly. Canadian energy regulators conditioned project approval on a raft of added safety measures. Trans Mountain has also paid to enhance oil spill prevention and response capabilities at multiple new bases on Vancouver Island near the international shipping lanes.

Trans Mountain said it expects the enhancements to raise the level of care and safety during tanker transits “to well above globally-accepted shipping standards.”

“Trans Mountain has loaded marine vessels with oil at the Westridge Marine Terminal since 1956 without a single spill from tanker operations,” the company said on its website

Let’s do the numbers

The contentious Trans Mountain expansion project involved “twinning” an existing crude oil pipeline that stretches from the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta, to the Pacific Coast by Vancouver. The objective was to nearly triple the pipeline capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day. Simultaneously, Trans Mountain rebuilt its marine terminal in Burnaby to expand from one tanker loading berth to three.

Earlier this month, Trans Mountain announced the completed project would enter commercial service on May 1. However, oil is not yet flowing all the way down the new pipes because a few segments have yet to receive final operational permits from federal inspectors. A corporate spokesperson said via email Thursday that the first ship to export crude from the expanded pipeline was expected to load oil during the second half of May.

Previously, Trans Mountain’s Westridge Marine Terminal sent out an average of five oil tankers per month. The newly expanded terminal has a maximum capacity to load 34 tankers and three barges per month. The company spokesperson said the pace of the ramp-up in tanker frequency depends on oil markets.

“On average, we anticipate one empty tanker in, one partially laden tanker out every day with variability throughout the year,” an emailed statement said.

Laden tankers traverse the Strait of Georgia upon departure from the Port of Vancouver. They next must thread between Washington’s San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands before descending Haro Strait. The shipping lane bends west at Victoria to exit the Salish Sea through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, passing Port Angeles and Neah Bay, Washington, on the way out to the Pacific Ocean.

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The addition of more than 300 laden tanker transits per year is a “meaningful increase” in overall Salish Sea tanker traffic, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology, which tracks large commercial vessel entries.

In 2023, the Ecology Department counted 173 oil tankers entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca bound for British Columbia terminals. That compares to 384 oil tankers inbound to Puget Sound, chiefly carrying crude to Washington refineries. This means British Columbia tanker traffic will rise to become roughly on par with Washington’s share once the Trans Mountain exports ramp up and American articulated tug barges shuttling oil are also taken into account.

For the tankers it loads, Trans Mountain agreed to employ tug escorts all the way to the western entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Before, the tugs peeled off near Victoria. In addition, Trans Mountain paid on behalf of its shippers for dozens of additional oil skimmers, landing craft, response barges and to hire more spill response staff at multiple bases between Vancouver Harbour and Ucluelet.

The state Ecology Department manages spill prevention and response on the Washington side of the Salish Sea. The agency’s head of spill prevention, Brian Kirk, said his team is aware that the risk of a big spill could go up after May 1. But he said Ecology is not making any extra spill prevention investments like the Canadians did because he feels the state is well prepared today and into the future.

“We believe we have the resources and authorities to do our jobs,” Kirk said in an interview. “We won’t be doing anything differently after May first.”

In separate interviews, Pratt, with Friends of the San Juans, and Samish Indian Nation Chairman Tom Wooten both said the state’s spill response system could use improvement. Pratt said she was especially concerned about the narrow waterways of Haro Strait, Turn Point and Boundary Pass.

“The federal and state/provincial agencies and oil spill response organizations are not prepared to effectively contain and collect a Canadian tar sands diluted bitumen spill,” Pratt said, referring to the type of crude shipped from northern Alberta.

Western Canada anticipates benefits, Washington not so much

Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland celebrated the completion of the Trans Mountain expansion project during a speech to Parliament earlier this month.

“The Bank of Canada estimated this project alone will add one-quarter of a percentage point to Canada’s GDP,” crowed Freeland to applause and cries of “bravo” from her Liberal partisans and hoots from the opposition Conservatives.

The leader of the Conservatives, Pierre Poilievre, soon stood up to decry the extraordinary cost overruns on the state-funded project, calling it an example of “massive waste.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government rescued the troubled Trans Mountain expansion by buying it for 4.5 billion Canadian dollars in 2018 when it looked like private developer Kinder Morgan might throw in the towel.

But delays and challenges only mounted and construction costs soared to an estimated CA$34 billion ($24.9 billion U.S.) today. Canadian broadcaster CBC reported the federal government intends to sell the pipeline back to the private sector sometime in the next few years while having little prospect of earning back its sunk costs.

The Trans Mountain pipeline and marine terminal expansion opens up landlocked Alberta crude to Asian customers and gives California refineries an additional crude sourcing option as well. The thinking in Ottawa and Calgary was that if more Canadian oil could get to “tidewater,” Canadian producers would be less dependent on the Midwest U.S. market and would be able to charge a higher price.

A sore point south of the border is that Canada appears to get all the benefits while Washington state receives only the increased risk of an accident.

This complaint echoes with a separate project to expand the Port of Vancouver’s Roberts Bank container terminal. That planned project on the Strait of Georgia (barely one nautical mile from the U.S.-Canada border) would also increase shipping traffic and irks environmentalists because it would be built on top of critical habitat for endangered orcas and salmon.

Complaints go beyond oil spill risk

Pratt said it is not just the risks of accidents and spills that bother her.

“Just the presence of tankers is very concerning because of the risk of ship strikes [on whales] and the impacts of the noise they make,” Pratt said in an interview. “It’s not only the increase of the tanker traffic itself, but also the tug escort traffic.”

Tankers calling on the Trans Mountain export terminal observe the summer-fall voluntary slowdown zone in Haro Strait and Boundary Pass. The Port of Vancouver’s ECHO Program for large commercial vessels aims to reduce underwater noise and physical threats in the prime orca feeding area.

Vancouver Harbour prohibits supertankers, so the expanded oil export terminal near the head of the harbor in Burnaby does not have the option of consolidating cargoes to make fewer trips. It has to stick with the current size of oil tankers serving Pacific Northwest ports. In marine lingo, this means more of the same Panamax and Aframax class vessels, which top out at around 245 meters in length.

Gov. Jay Inslee registered strong opposition to the pipeline expansion during the Canadian approval process in 2018-19, leaning into his well-known advocacy for clean energy to replace fossil fuels.

“This project runs counter to everything Washington state is doing to fight climate change, protect our endangered southern resident killer whales, and protect communities on both sides of the border,” Inslee said in a 2018 statement.

Now that the Trans Mountain project is a fait accompli, Inslee’s press office said Thursday that the governor shares the Ecology Department’s confidence that the state’s laws and preparedness will help guard against the catastrophic impacts of an oil spill. Inslee urged continued vigilance and collaboration with tribes.

U.S. tribal opposition dates back to the beginnings of the Canadian pipeline and export terminal expansion, more than a decade ago. Tribes that voiced objections included the Swinomish, Samish, Suquamish, Tulalip and Lummi nations. Leaders from many of those tribes even traveled to Victoria in 2018 to testify in person and demand that U.S. Coast Salish tribal interests be considered too.

Reached in Anacortes, Wooten of the Samish Indian Nation said the concerns raised then about Trans Mountain – increased vessel traffic, noise pollution, the plight of the endangered orcas, along with unique issues of corralling spilled tar sands crude – are still relevant.

“Like it or not we’re stuck with it,” Wooten said. “My hope is that they operate it as safely as possible.”

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.