‘Ship Spotting’: Will the bid to increase oil tanker traffic sink Vancouver’s green ambitions?
FOR TWO YEARS, Ben West has watched the comings and goings of Vancouver’s oil tankers from the Wilderness Committee’s offices in Gastown, long enough to know the ships by name. The six-year-old Carmel, registered in Greece, weighs over 100,000 metric tons and can carry more than 700,000 barrels of oil; propped upright, it would reach higher than Vancouver’s tallest skyscraper, the sixty-two-storey Shangri-La. On its way out of the bustling port at high tide, it must manoeuvre through the Second Narrows, a channel that squeezes down to 120 metres wide. This leaves little room for error and no room to turn around as it sails toward the CN bridge, which requires a thirty-minute warning before being raised. Timing is everything.
A surge in oil tanker traffic spurred the thirty-four-year-old West to join veteran Greenpeace activist Rex Weyler in campaigning for restrictions. With no public consultation, annual tanker traffic tripled between 2005 and 2009, from twenty-five to seventy-four ships, thanks to the quiet influence of the largest pipeline company in North America. If Texas-based Kinder Morgan gets its way, as many as 360 tankers could soon be navigating through Vancouver’s waters to pick up oil from the sixty-year-old Trans Mountain, the only pipeline that connects Alberta’s oil sands to the West Coast. West and Weyler fear increased sea traffic will turn the city into a major artery for the Alberta oil sands, and compromise Vancouver’s green reputation as a bastion of environmentalism.
China’s Sung dynasty (AD 960-1279) oversaw unprecedented economic expansion, but as the population doubled and markets flourished great swaths of forest disappeared. Even ink, then derived from pine soot, drew on the dwindling trees. Politician, essayist, and early environmentalist Shen Kua (1031-95) believed he could save the forests by relying on an unlikely alternative: oil. By the eleventh century, shiyou, or “stone oil,” had become a familiar substance in China; its extraction dates as far back as AD 347, and its uses were well documented. So Shen decided to concoct a new ink from oil soot. One source describes it as “lustrous like lacquer, and superior to that made from pinewood lamp-black.” Nonetheless, it does not appear to have been widely adopted. Five years after his death, the forests received a further reprieve when iron forges switched from pine charcoal to bituminous coke.
Kinder Morgan bought the Trans Mountain in 2005. On the day you read this, some 300,000 barrels of oil will flow through the 1,150-kilometre pipeline, crossing prairie farmland and Jasper National Park, running down canyons, and slipping under the Fraser River. New plans to spend $5 billion would nearly triple the pipeline’s capacity, to 850,000 barrels per day. The company also wants to dredge the Second Narrows, to make room for ships large enough to carry a million barrels of oil apiece — four times the amount that leaked from the Exxon Valdez. This would allow for a nearly fourteenfold increase in oil tankers in the company’s first decade of owning the pipeline