Oil development in British Columbia’s coastal waters

Publication - June 26, 2010
The oil and gas industry has a great interest in accessing and expanding its operations in British Columbia’s coastal waters for oil development and transportation. Meanwhile, successive governments have not protected the marine environment nor have they legislated good management practices. There are no legal measures in place to stop oil tankers and an inevitable oil spill from happening on B.C.’s pristine coast.

“Can we promise there will never be an accident? No. Nobody can.” — Pat Daniel, Enbridge CEO(1)

Accidents happen. With oil tankers on B.C.’s coast and planned 400-per-cent increase in tar sands oil pipeline capacity to the coast(2) , it’s not a question of if a spill will occur, but when, where and how large. When you move oil, you spill oil. No amount of technology or process can eliminate human or mechanical error(3).

Once an oil tanker accident does happen, an oil spill on our coast could hit our shores in a matter of hours. Once it hits the shore, a total cleanup is impossible and toxic conditions can exist many years later(4). Cleanup at sea is similarly difficult and response is often too little too late. Recovering spilled crude oil in the marine environment is a difficult, if not impossible, task. It is common industry benchmarking to consider a 15-per-cent oil spill recovery rate a success(5).

Offshore oil and gas

The government of B.C.’s 2009 Energy Plan includes a commitment to, “Continue to work to lift the federal moratorium on offshore exploration and development and reiterate the intention to simultaneously lift the provincial moratorium.”(6) This moratorium has been in place since 1972(7). The B.C. government’s intention to open up Canada’s West Coast to oil drilling and development is similar to the development that caused the Gulf of Mexico disaster. However, in light of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Canadian government has publicly reaffirmed its commitment to the moratorium on offshore oil and gas development(8).

Enbridge pipelines

To date, crude oil tankers have never been allowed to pass through the fragile marine ecosystems and coastal rainforests of northern British Columbia. On May 27, 2010, Enbridge, North America’s largest pipeline company, applied for regulatory approval by the federal government to build 1,170-kilometre twin pipelines from Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat, in B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest(9).

If built, the pipelines would bring more than 525,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day to the coast to be loaded onto tankers destined for Asia and California. The pipelines would also carry 193,000 barrels of the dangerous petrochemical condensate per day from Kitimat to the Alberta tar sands to dilute the thick, heavy tar sands sufficiently to run through a pipeline. The pipelines would bring more than 200 crude oil tankers annually to the region.

The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines would cross approximately 1,000 rivers and streams including B.C.’s salmon-rich Fraser and Skeena watersheds. Despite reassurances, oil spills can and will happen. In 2008, Enbridge recorded 93 reportable spills(1)0 (11).

In 2009, Enbridge Energy Partners agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a lawsuit brought against the company by the state of Wisconsin for 545 environmental violations while building portions of the company’s Southern Access pipeline (linking Alberta’s tar sands to Chicago). Wisconsin’s attorney general said, “…the incidents of violation were numerous and widespread, and resulted in impacts to the streams and wetlands throughout the various watersheds.”(12)

The federal environmental assessment for the Northern Gateway project has received more public comments than any other proposed project to date, more than 2,000 letters of comment from Canadians and First Nations, overwhelmingly in opposition to the project(13). The assessment is governed by the Joint Review Panel (JRP), an initiative of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the National Energy Board. The JRP is made up of three members, none of them from British Columbia, where at least half of the pipeline would be built(14).

Kinder Morgan pipeline

There is already crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands making its way through southern B.C.’s waters via Burnaby, near Vancouver. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline brings 300,000 barrels of tar sands oil to Vancouver everyday and is responsible for two oil tankers full of heavy crude oil plying our coastal waters every week. Kinder Morgan plans to more than double its pipeline capacity in coming years(15).

In 2009, a major leak at Kinder Morgan’s terminal in Burnaby spilled more than 200,000 litres of oil and produced a noxious smell near a residential area. Just two years earlier, a rupture to the company’s underground pipeline spewed 234,000 litres of oil onto nearby cars, homes and into Burrard Inlet(16).

Are more pipelines needed?

There is an abundance of oil pipeline capacity from the tar sands and a slower than expected expansion of tar sands production, which is causing the business community to question whether the proposed pipeline projects are necessary(17).


1. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-investor/oil-sands-bitumen-to-flow-to-west-coast-by-2015-enbridge/article1551613/
2. http://www.kindermorgan.com/business/canada/tmx_documentation/brochure_single_page.pdf
3. http://ir.lib.sfu.ca/retrieve/730/etd1608.pdf
4. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/302/5653/2082
5. http://bc.pembina.org/pub/1307
6. http://www.energyplan.gov.bc.ca/report/BCEP_ReportOnProgress_web.pdf
7. http://www.empr.gov.bc.ca/OG/offshoreoilandgas/OffshoreOilandGasinBC/Pages/

8. http://www.vancouversun.com/news/offshore+drilling+moratorium+stays+Prentice/

9. http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/details-eng.cfm?evaluation=21799#documents
10. A reportable spill, leak or release is one that is large or significant enough that Enbridge is required to formally notify a regulatory agency.
11. http://www.enbridge.com/csr2009/downloads/Enbridge-2009-CSR-Report.pdf 2009
12. http://pubs.pembina.org/reports/oil-and-salmon-dont-mix-fact-sheet.pdf
13. http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/05/documents-eng.cfm?evaluation=21799&type=7
14. http://www.newswire.ca/en/releases/archive/January2010/20/c9968.html
15. http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=119776&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1433128&highlight=
16. http://www.ctvbc.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20090507/BC_oil_spill_kinder_morgan_

17. http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=119776&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1433128&highlight=