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Power Struggle

Everything we know about the Trans Mountain Expansion Project so far

How likely is an oil tanker spill in Vancouver’s harbour? Are we prepared for the impacts of a spill? Is there an economic case for the project? Here's what we found out.

Over the past month I’ve gathered questions you have about Kinder Morgan’s $7.4-billion Trans Mountain Expansion Project through this survey, and there were a lot of common themes that emerged. Among many great questions, British Columbians want to know: What is the probability of a tanker spill in Vancouver’s harbour if this project moves ahead? How prepared are we to mitigate the impacts of a spill? And is there really an economic case for this project?

Well, I’ve been trying find answers and it hasn’t always been easy. Here’s what I know so far:

What is the probability of a tanker spill in Vancouver’s harbour?

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will triple the system's capacity to move oil — from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000. With this expansion comes more tanker traffic — going from five tankers per month to 34 tankers per month. So what does mean for spill risk?

Everyone has different numbers, and even different ways of counting, when it comes to probability and risk. 

Trans Mountain claims the probability of a small spill is 1 in 284 years, and the probability of a worst case scenario spill is 1 in 2,841 years, because of enhanced safety measures.

View of Say Nuth Khaw Yum, also known as Indian Arm, Provincial Park. The Tsleil-Waututh are trying to protect their traditional territory from a spill. Flickr user jmw120
View of Say Nuth Khaw Yum, also known as Indian Arm, Provincial Park. The Tsleil-Waututh are trying to protect their traditional territory from a spill.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation in North Vancouver hired experts for their own report and claim there’s a 29 per cent chance of a worst case scenario spill and a 79 to 87 per cent chance of a smaller spill.

David Etkin, an Associate Professor of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University, said in an email, “the probability of an oil spill would increase by about a factor of 7, assuming other factors remain constant,” meaning that the risk multiplies by seven if the project goes ahead.

But Etkin, who was hired by the City of Vancouver during the National Energy Board proceedings, also says that none of the factors remain constant. For example, if the oil tanker fleet ages, more traffic comes into the harbour or current conditions change, the probability changes as well.

Almost everyone agrees that the probability of a small spill is much more likely than the probability of a worst case scenario spill.

Is B.C. prepared to properly mitigate the impacts of a tanker spill?

This is an important question for both environmental and political reasons. Heading into the election, the B.C. NDP are dead set against this project. But Christy Clark gave her Liberal government’s support for it in January, justifying that decision with the promise of jobs, taxes — and by touting Ottawa’s promise of a “world-leading marine oil spill response” through the $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan.

So does that plan equip us with the necessary tools? Are we ready for a spill? The short answer is we could be. But we’re not right now. I'm trying to find out if the equipment will be there before 2019 when the expanded pipeline begins operating. When it comes to that world-leading spill response, the B.C. Ministry of Environment tells us the “nuts and bolts of the plan” are “still to be worked out.”

And that $1.5-billion plan is for all of Canada’s coasts, not just southern B.C.’s.

Trans Mountain has also proposed an enhanced response regime that would be capable of responding to a 20,000 tonne release of heavy crude oil "within 36 hours with dedicated resources staged within the study area.” And they claim that these enhancements “would reduce times for initiating a response to two hours within Vancouver Harbour, and six hours for the remainder of the study area and parts of the West Coast of Vancouver Island.”

But it is not clear how, or if, that is going to be enforced.

Is there an economic case for this project?

We’re still digging into this one. The main arguments for the project have been jobs and access to diverse markets for our oil. It seems that everyone — Christy Clark, Justin Trudeau, etc. — is quoting Trans Mountain’s numbers on jobs, which Trans Mountain says it got from the Conference Board of Canada. This includes 15,000 jobs during pipeline construction, and 90 jobs during operation (50 in Alberta, 40 in B.C.).

“For the past four and a half years, we have said we would measure the project against these five clear principles, and that for the expansion of any heavy oil movement through British Columbia, these conditions are the path to get to yes," said Premier Christy Clark in a press conference in November 2016 after Justin Trudeau approved the project. Province of British Columbia
“For the past four and a half years, we have said we would measure the project against these five clear principles, and that for the expansion of any heavy oil movement through British Columbia, these conditions are the path to get to yes," said Premier Christy Clark in a press conference in November 2016 after Justin Trudeau approved the project.

But Trans Mountain hired the Conference Board of Canada to do the economic analysis, says Marc Lee, a Senior Economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. According to Lee, the number is closer to 2,500 construction jobs during peak construction, and that only lasts one month. He says the Conference board used the “flawed approach” known as input-output modelling to come up with their estimates. Lee says this approach is routinely used by governments and industry to justify large projects, and is biased toward producing exaggerated numbers.

And are there markets for our oil? This really depends on who you ask. Neil Earnest, a consultant who has more than 30 years experience in the downstream sector of the energy business, says in this report that “the Northeast Asia market is regarded as the most prospective one for Canadian crude oil producers due to its size, the installed capability of the regional refineries, and its physical proximity to the west coast of Canada.”

But at least a couple of economists say there’s not a market for our oil. Jeff Rubin is a world-leading energy expert and a former chief economist at CIBC World Markets. In this report, he wrote that the growth of crude “was once seen as crucial to meeting ever-growing global demand,” but that “oil sands production has become largely redundant in a saturated global oil market flooded by US shale production and record OPEC and Russian output.”

Robyn Allan is an independent economist and the former CEO of ICBC. In this report she says, while there are 13 shippers that have signed long-term contracts to carry oil products from the Trans Mountain pipeline system, “none of these shippers provided evidence to the NEB on where markets in Asia might exist.”

What do you know?

We’re still digging into these questions and I will continue to report back to you on our progress. But I’m curious about what you know. Have you found conflicting numbers? Have you gone deeper down these fact-checking rabbit holes? 

What I know for sure is that this project will impact a lot of people. Leading into next week’s election with parties that hold very different views on this project, let’s keep investigating together.