Let’s be clear, the actions of the self-styled “water protectors” will place the Pacific Northwest at greater risk of a major oil spill

My Twitter feed erupted this week with the news that protesters, led by Mike Hudema of Greenpeace, had rappelled beneath the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge to block the movement of an oil tanker from the Westridge Marine Terminal. Looking at Mike’s Twitter feed he had this to say:

“No one should need to spend almost two days suspended from a bridge trying to protect something as essential as water”

I care deeply about protecting our west coast marine and freshwater ecosystems and have taken a particular interest in the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) file. Thanks to that research I am concerned that these well-meaning “water protectors” may inadvertently be doing the opposite of what they hope. That is, instead of protecting our shared waters they are likely putting those waters at much greater risk. The rest of this blog post will explain why I feel this is true.

As my regular readers know, one of my areas of practice is risk assessment. An important thing to understand in risk assessment is that all activities have risk and thus it is vitally important to identify and compare the likelihood of competing risks. I fear this is where the “water protectors” have erred. All their discussions about risk deal solely with the risk posed by the export tankers from Westridge, but none of their analyses appear to consider the necessary alternatives if the TMX is not completed. By omitting this consideration they end up making bad decisions and pushing for bad policies.

The first thing we need to recognize is that our society is completely reliant on fossil fuels. Every scrap of food we eat and every drop of water we drink has a carbon footprint. I can’t think of a single part of my life that doesn’t rely in one way or another on fossil fuels. Now I recognize that we, as a society, must wean ourselves off fossil fuels, but that is not a simple task. As I have explained if we undertake herculean efforts and dedicate a historically unprecedented percent of our national gross domestic product to the task we have a reasonable chance of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels in 30-50 years. Even then it is likely closer to the 50-year than the 30-year timeline. What this means is that British Columbia and Washington have, and will have, an ongoing need for fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

So how much oil does BC need? As described by Business in Vancouver: B.C. consumed 192,000 barrels a day (bpd) of refined fuels in 2015. That works out to 70 million barrels of oil a year and almost all of it was imported, in one way or another, via the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Now if we only cared about about BC then maybe the activists may have a point but we live in the Pacific Northwest and share the Pacific Northwest with our neighbours to the south. Washington State has a voracious appetite for crude oil. In 2017, Washington imported approximately 213 million barrels of oil and the way they have been getting their oil is changing. In 2003, 91% of the crude oil used in the Puget Sound came by tanker (from Alaska) while the remaining 9% came via the Trans Mountain pipeline. In 2017, just under 46% of that oil came via tanker, 26% came by rail and the remaining 28% came from the Trans Mountain system.

Looking at that increase Washington now moves almost 55 million barrels of oil a year by rail. From January through March 2018 almost 20,000 rail cars of crude oil traveled for hundreds of kilometers along the banks of the Columbia River to feed Washington’s thirst for crude oil. This represents a weekly  average of 1,525 rail cars carrying 1,038,382 barrels of crude oil with 91% of that oil being the highly explosive light oil coming from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.

Now we know by now that  oil-by-rail has a 4.5 times greater risk of incident so every barrel we get off the rails is worth over 4 times its value in risk reduction. Moreover, as I have detailed, that oil-by-rail spends most of its route running alongside fragile river valleys or running through communities where people live. That makes rail even more dangerous to human and ecosystem health than the simple 4.5 given by the simple math.

As for the oil shipped to Washington by tanker? In 2003 almost all of that imported oil came on American tankers moving Alaskan crude. Those tanker numbers are decreasing because the Alaskan oil fields are going dry. Absent the TMX those Alaskan ships will be replaced by tankers out of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Those are ships that do not have to pass regular inspections from Canadian or American authorities because they are foreign-flagged. They will end up being less-safe tankers that won’t be required to follow the safety rules that the NEB placed on Canadian tankers as part of the conditions of the TMX.

Now I know what the activists are going to say: “but 7x more tankers“…..if I never again hear this simplistic refrain I will be a happier man. This tired factoid completely ignores the added precautions associated with the TMX project. 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%. Moreover, remember that 30% is multiplied by a near-zero number. 30% more of near-zero remains almost-zero. Essentially, they are saying that the project provides no significant increase in risk over those risks we accept every day.

Now I understand that I have lost a lot of you with all these numbers but here is my point. If the activists manage to block the TMX project, the crude oil necessary for our continued existence on the West Coast will still need to flow. It will simply flow via less safe means, specifically:

  • Explosive Bakken crude will flow in even greater quantities along rail lines that run the virtual length of the Columbia River and through the heavily populated communities of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Canadian oil trains will run in greater numbers alongside the Thompson and the Fraser Rivers and through every community along that route. A spill in either river will risk salmon runs that serve as the food source for, and are held sacred by, dozens of Indigenous communities in British Columbia.
  • Instead of highly-regulated Canadian tankers bringing Canadian crude to California and Asia we will see the Puget Sound and Semiahmoo Bay full of tankers coming out of the Middle East and registered in whatever jurisdiction has the lowest safety standards.
  • The eventual risk won’t be one major accident every 2000+ years it will be orders of magnitude higher and for what point? To satisfy Greenpeace’s voracious appetite for free media coverage and need for massive inflows of cash to fund their ill-considered campaigns.

Let’s make it clear. Any cold-eyed analysis of the relative risks shows that the TMX reduces our regional risks of oil spills. Blocking the TMX will increase the likelihood of a disastrous rail spill that could spell the end of a major fishery or result in the deaths of dozens of innocents. It also increases the likelihood of a marine spill from a foreign-flagged tanker. As I have written previously, what is most frustrating, from my perspective, is that the activists have even managed to convince some of the First Nations communities on the Fraser River that the pipeline is a greater risk to their communities than oil-by-rail. This means these First Nations are now fighting a project that has the potential to significantly decrease the risks to their communities. As someone who cares about human and ecological health, this is the saddest part of the entire story.


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

5 Responses to Let’s be clear, the actions of the self-styled “water protectors” will place the Pacific Northwest at greater risk of a major oil spill

  1. Derke.Blake@gmail.com says:

    Numbers, math, accuracy, logic, rational thinking …… the truth ……….. please don’t expect any of your silly facts to have an impact on Heguma and the cult that is Greenpeace.

    But thanks anyway; those members of the despised hordes who actually redistribute and rearrange molecules for a living appreciate your research.


  2. Ruud Hommel says:

    Thanks again Blair, for a well written- and evidence supported argument.

    Never mind the feathers, there still is a problem with the following paragraph:

    “Absent the TMX those Alaskan ships will be replaced by tankers out of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Those are ships that do not have to pass regular inspections from Canadian or American authorities because they are foreign-flagged. They will end up being less-safe tankers that won’t be required to follow the safety rules that the NEB placed on Canadian tankers as part of the conditions of the TMX.”

    The following link is from 2009 and much may have changed, but your first sentence above may need some adjustment? There are not that many tankers registered in the gulf area.

    The second sentence is a bit colored as well. In principle it may be true, I don’t know, but there is something like IMO”
    International rules for ships:

    When we get to the ship classification societies/companies, we can see that they basically work on risk assessment and prevention of catastrophes:

    An even older publication than the first reference might be cause for worries:
    I’m sure that history has proven the article right in some cases.

    Canadian “green ship” initiative is a better alternative for the above mentioned worries.
    Are the worries then (above) about possible interfering financial reasons now replaced by more sensible ones?

    An alternative for “heavy” tanker traffic through the Puget Sound could be an offshore offloading terminal and pipeline to onshore refineries. I haven’t a clue about pacific storms, but great faith in present construction capabilities.

    Sure, we all know about “Greek ship-owners” and my experiences with classification societies/companies are somewhat marred as well, but those are exceptions and we have good regulations about ships and shipping.

    I’d have loved to see you write “self serving” instead of “well meaning”, just to show on which side of the line I stand, but there’s more to shipping than referenced paragraph indicates.

    Have fun.


    • Blair says:

      I thought my text makes it clear that the tankers are registered in countries other than the Gulf but will look to see if I can make it more clear. Historically they were all registered in Liberia but that has changed.


  3. Eric says:

    Why is it that every other average joe can never be a “water protector”? What gives mr. Huduma and his band of followers that sort of self description other than an overbloted ego. While I understand the need for fossil fuels, whenever possible I travell on my bicycle and do not appreciate being labeled a water whore. By the way, just what did they do with their dirty excrement?


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