What are the real marine risks of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion?

Every morning, starting around 7 am, the Spirit of Vancouver Island leaves its berth in Swartz Bay for its first run to Tsawwassen. On-board the Spirit are tens of thousands of liters of diesel fuel to run the ship for the day. On her car decks the Spirit carries around 400 cars and a dozen or more transport trucks, each carrying tanks of gasoline or diesel fuel. Starting in Swartz Bay, the Spirit sails through the incredibly tight shipping lanes of the Gulf Islands, through Active Pass (a notoriously treacherous passage), through the active shipping lanes of the Strait of Georgia (all home to the endangered J-pod of resident BC Orcas) to the Tsawwassen Ferry terminal situated near environmentally fragile eelgrass beds that provide a habitat for countless small fish and the protected Pacific flyway. The ferry carrying hundreds of cars and trucks and thousands of people makes this trip numerous times daily without the support of any rescue tugs. Even scarier are the hazardous goods runs they do late at night where, in the dark, through this treacherous route, the ferries transport tens of thousands of liters of goods too dangerous to transport with civilians on-board.

You might ask why am I talking about ferries? The answer is because from a marine risk assessment perspective this route is a nightmare. The number of potential risks to human health and the environment are almost countless: spills, collisions, narrow passages, charted and uncharted rocks, engine loss all are potential outcomes from each trip and yet given the tremendous risk to human health and the environment our government has not cancelled this run to evaluate its continued safety to the coastal marine ecosystem. Just look at this link a colleague provided me of the August, 1970 splicing of Queen of Victoria by Soviet freighter Sergey Yesenin in Active Pass. Yet this week our provincial government announced that they are proposing a freeze on increases in the transportation of dilute bitumen (dilbit) partially based on the risks associated with the project. This caused me to think about risk and marine transport.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my job involves investigating and remediating contaminated sites. As part of my job, I also carry out the due diligence risks assessments to evaluate the risks posed by contaminated sites to human and ecological health. I evaluate risks every day but not the way most look at risk, I’m responsible for putting a number on risk, or more specifically, putting a number on the hazard a chemical poses to ecological health to determine if the risk is acceptable or unacceptable. There is an entire science to this task and I have spent a lot of time at this blog explaining how we do this. At the bottom of this post is a summary I have prepared that gives readers a chance to go through those posts at their leisure.

One of the first things you learn in studying risk assessment is that there is no such thing as an activity with zero risk. In everything we do we encounter risks. When we get in the car we put on our seat-belts; before our kids get on the ice they put on their helmets; before my daughters play soccer they put on their shin-pads. All these are tools used to reduce the risk of typical day-to-day activities. Industrial activities are no exception. Pipelines run the risks of leaks, tankers run the risks of spills and that is something we have to accept as part of living in a modern industrialized country. Using safety processes and procedures we work hard to minimize those risks but we can’t eliminate them in their entirety. But unless our government has a plan to eliminate the use of fossil fuels virtually overnight we will need to transport fossil fuels and pipelines are the safest way to transport fossil fuels overland. If the government succeeds in stopping the pipeline all they will have done is increased our risk of a major fossil fuel spill. As for the absolute safest way to transport fossil fuels, that would be modern, double-walled tankers.

Going back to the BC coast, while the BC Ferries pose a pretty significant risk, far more frightening, from a marine spill perspective, are the daily barge runs that move fuels from Vancouver and the refineries in the Puget Sound to keep Vancouver Island supplied with the diesel and gasoline necessary to keep its communities alive. These barges run on odd schedules, through good weather and bad and are never accompanied by two marine rescue tugs. Has our provincial government blocked the movement of these barges? Of course not! Even worse, look at those fuel barges going up the coast. Does the Nathan E Stewart ring a bell? As I have written previously, the provincial government has essentially ignored this risk for decades and failed to put in the money necessary to ensure a reasonable spill response. So when our current government says it wants to investigate expanded dilbit transportation (a hypothetical future risk) while ignoring a real, pressing and much more significant existing risk, you are left to wonder if it is really politics rather than a concern for the environment that is causing them to make this decision.

On another front, as I write this blog post the port of Vancouver is engaged in a public consultation process about plans to increase the size of Delta Port. This at a port that currently has approximately 23,000 ship movements a year and is looking to add an estimated 5000+ more ship movements if all the future upgrades are included. This dwarfs the 720 additional ship movements associated with the Trans Mountain expansion (TMX).

Now unlike the Port, the fuel barges or the BC Ferries, the NEB required a detailed risk analysis of the TMX. The critical document on this topic is the report Termpol 3.15 – General Risk Analysis and intended methods of reducing risk which evaluated the risks of the project. It concluded that “with effective implementation of risk reducing measures most of the incremental risk resulting from the project can be eliminated“. To put a number on it:

  • Without the project the risk of a credible worst case oil spill is estimated in 1 in every 3093 years….If all the risk reducing measures discussed in this report are implemented the frequency will be one in every 2366 years.
  • This means that after the Project is implemented, provided all current and future proposed risk control measures are implemented, the increased risk of a credible worst case oil spill in the study area from the Trans Mountain tanker traffic will be only 30% higher than the risk of such an occurrence if the Project did not take place.

By increasing the number of tankers by 7 times, but also implementing the changes that were ultimately mandated by the NEB, the risk of a spill is less than one event every 2000 years. So no, the risk does not increase by 7 times, it increases by barely 30% and 30% more of almost zero remains almost zero. Essentially they are saying that the project provides no significant increase in risk over those risks we accept every day (what I refer to as a de minimis risk below). In exchange for a negligible increase in risk we get economic prosperity and the economic health and goodwill of our neighbouring provinces. The dollars generated by this project are what pay for our health care and social services.

Certainly the government could try to make a case that the risks posed by the TMX (one accident every 2000+ years) may be too high for the benefits incurred. But that is not the argument they, or the opponents of the pipeline, have been making. They argue that BC should not incur any risk to compensate for our current level of prosperity. The problem is that our current level of prosperity is a direct result of our national union. To suggest that we accept no risk, in a world where we balance every other risk out there, is simply not a legitimate argument to make.Arguing that the TMX poses too much risk while simultaneously refusing to fund improved spill response in the Central BC Coast is the epitome of hypocrisy. It shows that the ban is not risk-based but simply political in nature. The opponents of the pipeline need to enumerate the risks and explain why the de minimis increase in risk associated with the pipeline is not worth the improvement in the quality of life it provides to British Columbians and Albertans alike.

Addendum on Risk and Toxicity

I have written a lot at this blog about how risk is communicated to the public and I have prepared a series of posts to help me out in situations like this. The posts start with “Risk Assessment Methodologies Part 1: Understanding de minimis risk” which explains how the science of risk assessment establishes whether a compound is “toxic” and explains the importance of understanding dose/response relationships. It explains the concept of a de minimis risk. That is a risk that is negligible and too small to be of societal concern (ref). The series continues with “Risk Assessment Methodologies Part 2: Understanding “Acceptable” Risk” which, as the title suggests, explains how to determine whether a risk is “acceptable”. I then go on to cover how a risk assessment is actually carried out in “Risk Assessment Methodologies Part 3: the Risk Assessment Process. I finish off the series by pointing out the danger of relying on anecdotes in a post titled: Risk Assessment Epilogue: Have a bad case of Anecdotes? Better call an Epidemiologist.

This entry was posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Risk Communication, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to What are the real marine risks of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion?

  1. brucegart says:

    I think the main concern is for whales, dolphins, and orcas with the increased underwater noise and death by collisions from the new oil tankers. the current marine traffic is already too high for these creatures.


  2. Chris Aikman says:

    The real risk of course is that of destabilizing our climate. This threat is very real, and there is only one way to stop it, and that is to stop the extraction of fossil hydrocarbons from the Earth’s crust for the purpose of combusting them into the atmosphere. Any method of stopping this activity is fully justified from both scientific and political viewpoints.


    • Warren Blair says:

      Chris; if you really believe your statement is true then I assume that you will be delighted if the government of Alberta resolves to curtail the flow of fossil fuels to BC. Good luck.


      • Chris Aikman says:

        Who can tell how events will unfold? If Alberta restricts oil flow to BC, it may tip us into electric vehicles that much faster, and defeat their intention. Petroleum isn’t the only source of energy.


  3. To reduce the risk of climate change we must shrink the economy because wealth is proportional to energy consumption (US$1(1990) = 10 mW) and because 85% of our energy comes from burning carbon, and the remaining 15% needs burning carbon for it to work. It would be much more effective, and honest, for opponents of the pipeline to lobby for a dramatic increase in the interest rate because that’s a guaranteed way to shrink the economy. A one child policy and a ban on immigration would also be wise strategies for reducing Canada’s CO2 emissions.


    • Chris Aikman says:

      We have been conditioned to believe that energy is bad, and that it comes mostly from fossil hydrocarbons. Let’s stop believing both these falsehoods. Energy is abundant and safe, but we need to resource it from sustainable sources, mostly from solar energy which manifests as sunlight and the movement of air and water.

      We can have a prosperous, more egalitarian, more environmentally responsible society. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible.


  4. Chris Aikman says:

    There is way more solar energy than we’ll ever need:

    Yes, there is still a lot of fossil energy left.
    Remember the first rule of adulthood: ‘Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should’.

    Maybe god or nature in his/her wisdom stored all that carbon away by geologic processes for a reason: to maintain a planetary temperature suitable for human life. It would be a shame to lose that. Venus did.


  5. Steve Todd says:

    good read I bet your not on Dogwoods Christmas card list


  6. Evan Leeson says:

    I appreciate your perspective as a professional in a related field. However, you base your final assessment on the NEB report. The report was signed off by a stacked deck of pro-energy appointees. The NEB as constituted was found sorely lacking and is being replaced by the current government. Yet, we who live on the coast are expected to lay down and accept a decision made by a body discredited by the same government that accepted it’s last decision. A reassessment of this project is the least that should happen. Especially when every impossible or highly unlikely outcome seems to be met these days with its own black swan. Witness the Iranian tanker Sanchi, a Suezmax-class tanker (approx. 50 percent larger than those to be employed by the expanded TMX) that, despite all the modern guidance and double hulling etc. managed to collide with another freighter just a month ago, catch fire, burn, explode and sink in the middle of rich fishing grounds off Japan. This was 100 percent condensate cargo and they currently can’t say what happened to it. A lot of it burned, but it can also dissolve in seawater and be carried around in the currents. Dilbit is typically 30 percent condensate, so we get the added benefit of a potential fireworks show AND a massive dilbit cleanup job like that still underway in the Kalamazoo River. That one cost 1B and still climbing. And that was only a million gallons. The Aframax tankers that will carry the dilbit from the TX expansion carry up to 750,000 barrels. That’s 23,625,000 gallons of dilbit that we’re still struggling to understand the impact of in a large spill scenario.


    • Blair says:

      Let’s start with a quick Chemistry lesson. Condensate is a polar solvent with a specific gravity of 0.5-0.7, is virtually insoluble in polar solvents and is highly volatile. The reason the spill is “invisible” is that it has volatilized. The plume is gone. The crash was in the open ocean and did not involve local pilots or safety tugs so the comparison is simply not there.

      I’ve written previously about Kalamazoo and the effect of the flooding on sediment loads and the formation of OPAs.

      As for your NEB comment, the government even pointed out that based on their analysis the pipeline would still have passed under the new Environmental Assessment rules.


      • Evan Leeson says:

        Thanks for your reply and the lesson. Professor Richard Steiner, who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill, seems to disagree with your assessment of what happens to the condensate. It doesn’t just plume off, according to him. I am not an expert like the two of you, but it does interest me that there is disagreement still. This indicates we don’t really know the full answers yet. He’s talking about the Sanchi spill here:

        “RICHARD STEINER: Well, all these major marine oil spills are different. Each one is unique. This one is extraordinarily so. We have never seen a major release of natural gas condensate as large as this in the marine system. This is by far and away the largest condensate release in history. It burns, evaporates, and dissolves in the water, and the component that dissolves in the water column is what I’m most concerned about. This is acutely toxic, it’s very volatile, and as it spreads with water currents it exposes all marine organisms in its path. They can be killed quickly, or they can suffer sub-lethal ecological harm, such as respiratory impairment, reproductive impairment, long-term physiological damage. All sorts of things can happen short of being killed. So this is acutely toxic stuff, and again, we’ve never seen a major marine spill of condensate like this, so we have to be very honest about what we don’t know and what we do know, and there’s a lot we don’t know about this.”

        Dilbit is composed of condensate and bitumen. So we get a bunch of different things happening when the inevitable happens. If it takes $1B to clean up 1M gallons in a river with clear shorelines, what does it take to clean up tens of millions in open ocean. Let’s be honest, it will not be cleaned up. It will be like the Gulf of Mexico. Who knows where it all finally washes up.

        “Everything will be fine.”

        As far as the current government (I won’t bother linking to the video of Trudeau promising that the KM approval process would be killed and restarted) stating the approval would have still happened, of course they would say that, wouldn’t they. Can you imagine them saying the opposite?

        Then there’s the doublespeak of “Tar sands expansion will help us meet our climate goals.” I think Canada will be just fine without the TMX. Kinder Morgan will find other ways to continue to get their products out. They aren’t hurting and neither is Canada. Alberta led the country in 2017 economically.

        Everything will indeed be fine.


  7. peanutflower says:

    I wonder if you have any comment on a report that has a few tidbits that the “sacred trust” crowd are trotting out: An Assessment of Spill Risk for the TransMountain Expansion Project, Gunton and Broadbent, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University. In there is KM’s prediction of a 99 percent certainty of a spill in the next 50 years. The missing info is, of course, a spill from where and what constitutes a spill, but that isn’t of interest to anti-pipeline folks. It’s the “99 percent sure” part they’re seizing upon. I wondered if you had ever read the report, and if so, what your comments might be on it.


  8. rogercaiazza says:

    Relevant to your concerns about pipelines: https://www.aei.org/publication/the-boston-globe-editorial-board-unloads-on-the-pipeline-absolutism-of-environmentalists/. Be sure to read the Boston Globe editorial itself.


  9. Bill Harrington says:

    Do any of the ferries and other ships you mention carry dilbit?


  10. Barry Yardley says:

    So people want to stop pipeline. what most don’t realise is that the state of Texas with a population of approx. 27 million compared to Canada’s 35 million uses around 224 million litres of gas and diesel fuel per day compared to Canada’s usage of 111 million litres per day. And a lot of our oil is being shipped there at a discount so that Texans can buy a us gallon of fuel at half the price as BC residents can buy the same fuel. and this is only one state. stop listening to people like green peace who are American funded and let your own decision be based on true facts.


  11. C Crawford says:

    I am reminded of the commercial a few years ago where a couple of actuarials are sitting on a bench ‘risk analyzing’ day to day events.
    Suddenly, out of the port, comes a t-rex and its runs down the street flipping cars and eating tourists. One actuarial turns to the other and says “WOW … what are the odds of that happening?”. And the other answers “100% now”.

    This is the only blog I have found where, at least a handful of people will look at the science.
    Everyone was horrified by the term ‘alternate facts’ … I didn’t get it. Alternate facts are you looking at objectively measured facts and me looking at those same fact … and coming to different conclusions. I would call that the ‘seeds of debate’.
    I’m late to this particular thread but will subscribe to it and enjoy the discussion.


  12. Bob Lyman says:

    What an extraordinarily useful article! Thank you for posting it. We would all be better off if every literate person in British Columbia read it.


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