October 6, 2009

B.C. natives: Freighter grounding shows folly of shipping tar sands oil through coastal rainforest

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A freighter’s grounding in the labyrinthine back bays of northern British Columbia shows what a dumb idea it would be to ship oil from Alberta’s tar sands area through the area in the Great Bear Rainforest, a band of natives says.

The Gitga’at First Nation pointed to the grounding of the 41,000-ton Petersfield, loaded with soda ash and lumber products, as evidence that supertankers carrying oil have no place in the fragile backcountry waters. The vessel is nearly as long as two football fields.

The best story on the whole affair comes from Mark Hume of the Globe and Mail, who traced it to a problem with the vessel’s gyroscope that affected a number of systems on the bridge, including steering.  The Gitga’at observed in a press release:

The ship currently docked at Kitimat looking like a prizefighter with a broken nose is an ugly reminder of the threat posed by proposed pipelines and tanker traffic to the territory of the Gitga’at First Nation.

Canadian and American environmentalists have long  complained that developing Alberta’s tar sands — aka “oil sands” — would unleash far too many greenhouse gases

Enbridge Pipelines, meanwhile, is planning  construct a pipeline to ship oil from Alberta to British Columbia, where it could be loaded onto tankers for transport to refineries on the West coast. Or, as became apparent recently when a Chinese government-owned firm bought into tar-sands development, the stuff could be shipped all the way to China. That gives Canada an important escape valve to market tar-sands oil if — and this doesn’t seem likely — enviros win and get the United States to turn it nose up at tar-sands oil.

Steve Greenaway, vice-president of public and government affairs for Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, told Hume that using a tug tethered to tankers would prevent groundings:

We have simulated similar incidents [on computers], and we have found the tethered escort acts as a very good safety mechanism. The tug can prevent that type of accident.

And it should be pointed out that freighters are not oil tankers.

Of course, U.S.-based oil companies have tried to go without tug escorts in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and around the San Juan Islands, saying their double-hulled ships with backup systems for steering and other crucial elements are safe enough. In fact, tankers travel 60 miles from the mouth of the strait to Port Angeles before picking up tug escorts. Oil companies have successfully resisted enviros’ calls for tug escorts from the time the tankers enter the strait.

Judith Lavoie of the Victoria Times Colonist also had a piece on the Petersfield grounding, although her Canwest colleagues at the Vancouver Sun so far have inexplicably not picked up the story.

— Robert McClure

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