One of the issues in the Northern Gateway pipeline hearing is the threat that oil tankers will pose in the dangerous channels and sensitive ocean environments near the proposed port, Kitimat. Enbridge soothingly predicts that major spills will be inconceivably rare:
"Under our proposed marine safety program, the probability of a 'large' spill of 20,000 cubic metres (126,000 barrels) is once in 2,800 years, and the probability of a 'major' spill of 40,000 cubic metres (252,000 barrels) is once in more than 15,000 years (project application Volume 8C, Section 3, page 3-2)."
Enbridge promises to minimize spills by requiring:
These are good, indeed impressive, precautions, but I remain a sceptic.
Oil tankers are undoubtedly much safer than they used to be. Since the Torrey Canyon and the Exxon Valdez, catastrophes of a generation ago, there have been major improvements in tankers (notably double hulls), in spill preparedness and response, and in navigational aids such as GPS. The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation proudly reports that oil spills from ships have plunged since the 1970s, despite an increase in seaborne trade. Only one third of the major marine spills in the first decade of this century involved oil tankers, and not all of those lost their cargos. (The remaining spills involved fuel tanks used by other types of ships, and/or hazardous or noxious substances from other types of cargo.)
But there were still 221 significant pollution incidents from sophisticated ships between 2000 and 2010. For example, in 2010, the MSC Chitra lost 600 tonnes of fuel oil plus containers of poisonous aluminium phosphide just outside Mumbai Port. It contaminated sensitive mangroves, a world heritage site, and a popular tourist area, just before a major religious festival involving baptism in the affected waters.
Spills of heavy oil, such as could be shipped from the tar sands, are particularly damaging and hard to clean, as shown by the €100 million wreck of the Prestige in 2002:
"Owing to the highly persistent nature of PRESTIGE's cargo [of heavy oil], the released oil drifted for extended periods with winds and currents, travelling great distances...
A major offshore cleanup operation was carried out ... the largest international effort of its kind ever mounted ... hampered by severe weather and by the inability of those vessels that lacked cargo heating capability to discharge recovered oil. Over a thousand fishing vessels also participated in the cleanup...
The open-sea recovery operation off Spain reportedly removed almost 50,000 tonnes of oil-water mixture. However this, and the extensive booming of estuaries and sensitive areas by the deployment of over 20km of boom, failed to prevent extensive coastal contamination.... approximately 1,900 km of shoreline.... banning virtually all fishing... impact on tourism .... etc."
If all of this could happen in Europe, just a few years ago, why couldn't it happen here?
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