Tankers and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Even Possible

Back in the summer, I wrote a blog post entitled Pipelines and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Good Enough. The post was about a leak in a Husky Oil pipeline that had spilled into the North Saskatchewan river and contaminated the drinking water for approximately 70 000 Saskatchewanians (and poisoned the habitat of countless wild creatures that called the river home). My concern was that the regulatory environment around fossil fuel transportation has bowed to pressures from the fossil fuel industry to focus on “responsible outcomes” (i.e. leak and spill clean-up) rather than preventing environmental disasters from happening in the first place. (You can read a letter, signed by representatives from the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Gas Association and sent to the federal government in 2011, here. Many of the industry’s requests later appeared in legislation tabled and passed by the Harper Government).  My point was that, even giving Husky Oil the benefit of the doubt and assuming that pipeline maintenance, observation, and spill response was a top priority for the company and that Husky did the best they could, they were still unable to prevent disaster. Not quite the kind of “responsible outcome” fossil fuel industry representatives had championed.

But what about when, as happens far too often, the “best” isn’t even available? What if, for example, a tugboat pulling a (thankfully empty) fuel barge were to run aground off the coast of the (supposedly protected) Great Bear Rainforest? And right near the clam beaches at Bella Bella, threatening the food security and economic well-being of the Heiltsuk Nation (not to mention fouling their traditional lands and waters)? What if, though the barge itself was empty, the tug, pierced by the sharp rocks of this precarious stretch of coast, began to leak its over 200 000 litres of diesel fuel (and thousands more litres of hydraulic oil, lubricants, and other contaminants) into these precious waters? What if the initial response team had to travel from over 300 km away, and took 20 hours to even arrive at the scene? What if the booms placed around the tug to contain the spill couldn’t withstand the severe weather conditions common on B.C.’s northern coast? Could we say, in that instance, that the industry had done its “best”? Could we say, in that instance, that the government and industry were demonstrating a commitment to “responsible outcomes”? How could the public trust that industry and government will be able respond to a large tanker or barge spill when they couldn’t even contain the fuel tank contents of a tug?

webwcmrcmapofequipmentcachescopyUnfortunately, these questions are not hypotheticals. The tugboat Nathan E. Stewart, which was pulling an empty barge, really did run aground on October 13, just off the coast of Bella Bella, B.C., and it really did leak diesel fuel into the sea,  polluting the clam beaches of the Heiltsuk people and devastating their livelihood. Spill response, which had to come from the nearest Western Canada Marine Response Corp. station in Prince Rupert, over 300 km away, really did take 20 hours to arrive on scene (WCMRC is an industry-funded organization that responds to fossil-fuel spills). The provincial and federal governments, meanwhile, were (to say the least), somewhat unsatisfactory in their responses (the premier’s response was to blame the federal government for their lack of response, and the federal government’s response was to, I’m not sure, chew some gum for about three days?).

It is unknown at this time what the real extent of the damage to Bella Bella has been. It may be a long time before we know the extent of the environmental and economic damage done to the Heiltsuk Nation. In the meantime, the federal government is set to decide whether it will approve further pipeline projects to carry Alberta bitumen to B.C.’s tidewater. Any increase in the volume of fossil fuels reaching the coast, of course, means an increase in tanker traffic, meaning all coastal B.C. residents, not just those in Bella Bella (or those B.C. residents living in the pipeline’s path), are significantly impacted by these decisions.

This is why both government AND the fossil fuel industry have been throwing around phrases like “world class spill response” for the past few years in order to assuage fears about proposed fossil fuel projects. But whatever this “world class” spill response might be, it hasn’t proven it can overcome B.C. geography or its weather (a fact totally ignored by the National Energy Board, which ruled that Kinder Morgan’s spill response plan for the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline is feasible and adequate, despite the fact that experts have warned that the outcomes promised by Kinder Morgan simply will not be possible).

Of course, containing a spill is difficult work. Of course, the B.C. coastline is dangerous and its weather, especially in the winter months, is unpredictable and extreme. Indeed, the technology for overcoming these challenges may not even exist (and the technology for recovering bitumen after it spills into water certainly does not). Even with the best of intentions, a “responsible outcome” may not be possible if another fuel spill were to occur on B.C.’s coast. Which is why maybe, just maybe, the most responsible course of action is not to take that risk at all.

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