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Point: Safe passage for tankers?

safe passage for tankers

Opinion: Claims that B.C. waters will become unsafe if oil and gas projects are OK’d are groundless

By Stephen Brown, Special to The Vancouver Sun

June 18, 2013

I’ve followed the evolution of the marine industry for a lifetime, both as a professional mariner and in shoreside vessel management, so I’ve had a front-row seat to the enormous progress in safety and environmental protection that the industry has achieved since the Exxon Valdez incident in Alaska in 1989.

The Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia works closely with legislators, our members, and those of other national and international associations to achieve this continuous and enviable level of improvement.

The debate surrounding the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and other B.C. energy projects provides the marine industry with an opportunity to explain to our fellow British Columbians its leading role in ensuring the safe transportation of Canada’s energy resources.

The reality is that there have been dramatic safety improvements in tanker construction and operating practices over the past 30 years resulting in a reduction in major spills from tankers. There were 580 in the 1970s, declining to zero in 2012, even as the total number of tankers operating worldwide has significantly increased.

This improvement is the result of a number of factors, including the use of double-hull construction which is now mandatory under International Maritime Organization rules and the laws of most countries, including Canada. It is also the result of the development of precision navigational tools and huge investments in the training of tanker officers.

It has been suggested that tankers face more navigational challenges and weather conditions in B.C. than in many other waterways. While this may serve to confuse the average landlubber, it is categorically wrong.

Even close to home, we have very comparable weather conditions to those found on the East Coast of Canada, which has been handling large tankers for many years without incident.

Detailed simulation undertaken by B.C. Coast Pilots, who have for many years conducted vessels through the Douglas Channel through which tankers for the Northern Gateway project will navigate, has determined that large tankers can safely transit the channel without tugs. Yet as an additional safety measure, escort tugs will be used for the entire passage. When a tanker is loaded, one tug will be tethered to enhance speed of response should that ever be needed.

In the view of the marine industry, the Douglas Channel, which is 1,575 metres across at its narrowest point, is safe for tanker transit. By contrast, the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, has around 50,000 vessel transits a year (including 8,000 tankers) through a winding passage that is 698 metres across at its narrowest point.

Similarly, the Dover Straits handles over 200,000 vessels per year and the Malacca Straits, between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, sees 64,000 ship transits per year, including 23,000 tankers. Meanwhile, the port of Singapore handles around 128,000 vessels a year compared to just over 3,000 in Vancouver.

While no waterway in the world has been without incident, the direction toward far fewer accidents is clear.

Given B.C. waters are no more treacherous than anywhere else and carry far fewer vessels, the suggestion that B.C.’s coastal waters will become unsafe if the major oil and gas projects now under consideration are approved is without foundation.

However, B.C. is different from other marine jurisdictions in one important respect in that we have the largest single compulsory pilotage area in the world.

More than 100 highly skilled and experienced coastal pilots conduct ships safely through our local waters every day with an exemplary record of safety.

No transportation sector is entirely free of risk. The key in all cases is to mitigate and manage the identified risks and this we do in the marine sector, every day, with every tool at our disposal. However, 90 per cent of everything that moves in world trade does so by sea and so everyone on Earth is a stakeholder in ensuring success.

In the case of Northern Gateway and the Kinder Morgan projects, we believe the proposed approach will mitigate risk and allow the safe transportation of Canadian oil across our waterways to important markets around the world.

Capt. Stephen Brown is president of the Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia. The chamber’s new website, safeshippingbc.caprovides detailed information on the safety and environmental performance of B.C.’s marine industry.


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