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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Cooperate to prevent oil spills, disturbances

The Columbian
Published: May 1, 2024, 6:03am

Ideally, Washington residents will not hear much in the coming years about the Trans Mountain Pipeline or about oil tankers in the Salish Sea. The practice of transferring oil from one place to another typically draws attention only when a disaster occurs.

But as Canada nears completion of a pipeline expansion from Alberta to British Columbia, the project promises to impact our state while also demonstrating the delicate balance between environmental and economic concerns.

To begin with, there is an indisputable need for oil to power the global economy. While the imperative to reduce the burning of fossil fuels is clear, there is no getting around the fact that a daily average of 100 million barrels of oil — more than 4 billion gallons — is consumed. The U.S. is the world’s leading oil producer (and consumer), and Canada is No. 5.

To ease access to global markets, the Canadian government in 2019 approved expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The project, which is tripling the capacity of the pipeline and is expected to be completed next month, will transfer oil to Burnaby, near Vancouver, B.C. From there, much of it will be carried on ships to global markets.

That is where Washington comes in. More oil-bearing tankers will travel past the San Juan Islands and through the Salish Sea near the Olympic Peninsula on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Currently, approximately five oil tankers a month make the journey; soon, there are expected to be an average of one per day.

“This is deeply irresponsible,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in 2019. “While they may think this is in Canada’s best interests, this is not in the best interests of the people of Washington or of the world.”

We agree. But Washington officials were powerless to resist the plan or unilaterally make the rules for international waters. Now, concerns are focusing on the potential for oil spills and increased disturbances for endangered orcas and other marine life.

As Lovel Pratt of Friends of the San Juans told media outlet Washington State Standard: “Anytime you move oil from one place to another, that presents a risk of an oil spill. 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.”

Canadian regulators have added safety measures in conjunction with the expansion, and oil spill prevention and response capabilities have been enhanced on Vancouver Island, near the international shipping lanes.

From an American standpoint, the issue highlights environmental issues and risk management. For years, debates and protests surrounded a proposed expansion of the Keystone Pipeline that runs from Alberta through middle of the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. The Keystone XL Pipeline was proposed to run through Montana and South Dakota to meet up with the original pipeline on the way south.

The XL phase of the project was delayed by President Barack Obama in 2015; it was revived by President Donald Trump in 2017, but President Joe Biden revoked the permit on his first day in office in 2021. The project was then abandoned. The demise of the Keystone XL Pipeline heightened demand for the Trans Mountain expansion, landing the issue in Washington’s backyard.

That proximity will demand attention from Washington officials and cooperation with Canadian authorities. We cannot prevent an increase of oil tankers through the Salish Sea, but we can work to ensure that the Trans Mountain pipeline and tankers stay out of the news.