State waters might see more oil-tanker traffic

Oil-tanker traffic in Washington waters is set to increase under a proposal floated by Canadian energy giant Kinder Morgan.

The company earlier this month announced that so much interest was expressed by potential customers in long-term purchase contracts for Canadian tar-sands oil that it is bumping up the proposed expansion of its Trans Mountain Pipeline announced last year.

The company said this month it wants to increase its pipeline capacity from 750,000 barrels per day announced last April to 890,000 barrels per day.

That translates to a big jump from its current capacity of 300,000 barrels per day, and an increase in tankers transiting the Salish Sea from five a month to up to 34 a month, if the expansion is approved, said Michael Davies, director of marine development for the Trans Mountain Expansion Project.

The preponderance of the tanker traffic would travel through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the northern border of the Olympic Peninsula, proceed between the San Juan and Gulf islands, and enter Vancouver Harbor.

The company will be developing its expansion proposal to Canada’s National Energy Board over the coming months, with an eye to beginning operations by 2017, Davies said. The expansion will require twinning the company’s existing pipeline, and adding two more berths at its Vancouver-area Westridge Marine Terminal.

The increased tanker traffic would come on top of 450 to 480 more cargo ships per year traveling to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham, if a proposed bulk coal-shipping terminal is built.

Some see a need for caution, particularly if oil-tanker traffic escalates.

“This is one of those moments in history that will significantly increase the risk exposure of a catastrophic oil spill in Puget Sound, within a core area of the killer whale’s critical habitat,” said Fred Felleman, a Seattle resident who serves as an alternate on a steering committee engaged in a vessel-traffic risk-assessment analysis.

“You can’t just squeeze more traffic through the same waterway and expect everything to remain the same.”

The goal of the steering committee is to work with shipping interests and others to craft a common understanding of risks posed by vessel traffic and how to manage them, said Todd Hass, of the Puget Sound Partnership.

“Puget Sound has enjoyed a couple of decades without a major spill taking place, but we need to stay vigilant,” Hass said. “This is our best opportunity to look forward, anticipate changes before they are upon us, and make adjustments accordingly so that we reduce the chance that we will have a major catastrophic spill for the foreseeable future.”

Under the expansion, the number of tankers plying the Strait of Juan de Fuca would increase by more than 50 percent, to more than 1,000 a year, including 408 tankers shipping Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline tar-sands oil, Davies said.

Chip Boothe, prevention section manager for the Washington Department of Ecology’s spill-prevention preparedness and response program, noted that while tanker traffic is scheduled to increase, it still would be a small portion of the approximately 5,000 to 6,000 transits a year of large commercial vessels coming into the region.

“We are not minimizing the potential for it to have an impact, but I am appreciating that we have a pretty robust marine-navigation safety system in this region,” Boothe said.

“Yes, there is a potential for increased traffic. Is that increase adequately managed in the system we already have in place, or does it need to be modified to assure we don’t increase risk? That is what we will be looking at.”

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in the 2012-13 appropriations bill for the U.S. Coast Guard, required a 180-day study to assess whether spill responses in place in the state would be adequate to address increased tanker traffic and tar-sands oil, which is different from Alaskan crude.

Davies said his company has never had a spill from a tanker at its dock since the Westridge terminal began operations in the 1950s.

Under the expansion, the company would be shipping the same types of oil it has since the mid-1980s, Davies said, in the same size ships.

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