Océans en santé. Communautés en santé

Twenty year anniversary of Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster: Is B.C. next?

March 23, 2009

SOINTULA, B.C. — On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Living Oceans Society is calling on the Government of Canada to make sure that British Columbia is not the site of the world’s next shipping disaster. The B.C. coast can be better protected by permanently banning oil tankers, improving oil spill response capabilities and strengthening shipping regulations. There are over 400,000 vessel movements along the coast each year, and over the next 15 years the number of ships moving through coastal waters is predicted to more than triple, yet the accident response capabilities and preparedness have not kept pace.

“We don’t want to wait for more accidents or major disasters before we improve the regulations controlling shipping on our coast,” said Oonagh O’Connor, Living Oceans Society’s Energy Campaign Manager. “Until now we’ve been fairly lucky, but luck has a way of running out, especially with industry pressuring the federal government to lift the 37 year old moratorium on oil tankers.”

Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez devastated Prince William Sound, Alaskan communities are still paying the price for the disaster through loss of livelihoods and irreversible environmental damage, resulting in a severely impacted way of life.

Pipeline proposals currently under consideration for northern B.C. would have oil tankers plying the inside waters to and from Kitimat, in defiance of the moratorium banning the vessels from the North and Central Coast.

“Enforcing and strengthening the moratorium on tankers are essential steps to protect B.C.’s coast from oil spills,” O’Connor says. “With impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill still occurring after 20 years, how can we expose life on our coast to such a risk? The recent tragedy in Australia, where 230 tonnes of oil from a storm-damaged container ship fouled 60 km of beaches, is another reminder that the threat of major spills is still very real.”

In addition to banning tankers, immediate steps must be taken to improve shipping accident response capabilities and strengthen shipping regulations. For motivation we need look no farther than the loaded fuel truck in Robson Bight, oil leaking from the sunken Queen of the North, and the Squamish Estuary which is still covered in Bunker C fuel oil from theWestwood Anette.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Coastal First Nations, and the North Coast–Skeena First Nations Stewardship Society are leading a marine planning process for the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (Pncima), an area of ocean from Campbell River to Prince Rupert. Living Oceans Society sees Pncima as an opportunity for the people who work and live on the coast to help improve the management of our ocean resources and environment. Along with other aspects of ocean management, shipping practices should be addressed in this process in order to ensure that the marine environment and marine economy are not put at risk.

To graphically illustrate how oil spills from shipping accidents would affect ecosystems and communities on the North Coast of B.C., Living Oceans Society has enhanced its online shipping spill model to include oil spill scenarios from cruise ships and container vessels to animations of spills involving oil tankers and drilling platforms from the model’s initial 2007 release.

The shipping spill model is available at www.livingoceans.org/spillfreecoast


LOS Marine Vessels Report




A high resolution image of the spill model is available upon request.

Contact: Geoff Gilliard 
Phone: 604-999-6273
E-mail: ggilliard [at] livingoceans.org


There is an average of over 400,000 vessel movements along the British Columbia coast per year. The table below shows the annual movements by vessel type from 1996/97 to 2003/04 for the coast. (Marine Communication and Traffic Service, Canadian Coast Guard 2008)

Vessel type Vessel description Average number of vessels/year Percent of total
Passenger Includes ferries and cruise ships 229,095 56
Tugs Towing or propelling barges 117,319 29
Cargo Bulk cargoes such as cars, grain, ore, etc. 29,253 7
Fishing Catching, processing or transporting fish under the Fisheries Act 11,078 3
Tankers Carrying liquid cargo, primarily oil 2,739 <1
Chemical Tankers carrying liquid chemicals, including petroleum and natural gas 1,278 <1
Other All vessels not in other categories 19,541 5
TOTAL 410,303 100

The Inside Passage route has almost constant vessel traffic. It is the marine highway from Georgia Strait through Johnstone Strait and Hecate Strait, into Kitimat, Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) or out through Dixon Entrance. It is used primarily by cruise ships, tugs and fishing vessels.

Inside Passage Facts (measured at Wright Sound):

  • 1,200-1,500 vessels each month use all or part of the passage in summer, 800-1,000 vessels each month in winter.
  • Currents and narrow passages make these waters challenging to navigate.
  • Numerous locations present close-quarter situations with other marine traffic.

Even with tankers banned from using the Inside Passage there are risks associated with other traffic. Ships other than oil tankers still carry sufficient fuel and other dangerous cargo to damage the environment if spilled. These include the approximately 128 Alaska cruise sailings that travel the Inside Passage annually.

  • The medium to large Alaska cruise ship is 50,000 to 90,000 gross tonnage.
  • A large (115,800 GT) cruise ship can have approximately 4,316 tonnes of fuel oil onboard.
  • Larger oil tankers and container vessels may carry over 7,000 tonnes of heavy oil, and another 350 to 1,400 tonnes of diesel.
  • One limit on ship size is the "Suezmax" standard, or the largest theoretical ship capable of passing through the Suez Canal, an approximately 137,000 DWT container vessel capable of carrying 14,000 TEU.

Shipping Moratorium History
According to federal government documents, in 1972 the Government of Canada introduced a moratorium banning oil tanker traffic from the North and Central Coast of B.C. Specifically, Dixon Entrance, Hecate Straight and Queen Charlotte Sound were determined to be—and remain—off limits to oil tanker traffic, and oil and gas exploration.

In 2004 the federal government undertook a review of the federal moratorium on offshore oil and gas. Many of the comments they received included concerns about tankers travelling the B.C. coast. As a result of the scientific evidence presented during the review, the independent panel concluded that the moratorium on tankers should be maintained. (Royal Society of Canada 2004).

Despite this recommendation, and the support of eight previous Prime Ministers, in 2006 the federal government allowed a violation of the moratorium when it granted permission for tankers to carry condensate into Kitimat. This significant change in federal policy was made without input from the many communities, nor consultations with First Nations governments along the tanker route.

The protection offered by the moratorium on crude oil tankers for 37 years has been weakened by recent interpretations. It is evident that in the short term the ban needs to be enforced by the federal government and, in the longer term, a stronger ban is needed to solidify protection from oil tankers by keeping them out of B.C.'s waters.

The Inevitability of Accidents
While the coast of B.C. has had some protection from massive crude oil tanker accidents due to the long-standing moratorium on oil tankers on the North and Central Coast, it appears to be only a matter of time before a severe accident such as the Exxon Valdez occurs here. The expansion of shipping on the coast has surpassed our ability to deal with accidents when they arise, and there are many proposals for expanding the amount of shipping on our coast, including allowing crude oil tankers into northern coastal waters. The Canada Shipping Act of 2001 provides the rules and regulations for shipping in Canada, but the existing and previous regulations do not prevent accidents, as the following table shows.

Notorious shipping accidents on B.C.'s coast

Spill/Tanker Location Date Quantity of spill (barrels) - Potential Quantity of spill (barrels) - Actual Type
Nestucca (barge) Gray's Harbor, B.C. Dec. 22, 1988   5,500 Bunker C
Exxon Valdez Prince William Sound, AK Mar. 24, 1989 1,261,400 284,000 Crude oil
Hanjin Elizabeth Brooks Peninsula, B.C. Feb. 11, 1999 19,585 None Bunker C
Queen of Surrey Horseshoe Bay, B.C. May 12, 2003 Unknown Fire Diesel
Queen of Oak Bay Horseshoe Bay, B.C. June 30, 2005 Unknown None Diesel
Queen of the North   Wright Sound, B.C. Mar. 22, 2006 1,384 14 Diesel, lube oil
Andre Vancouver Harbour July 4, 2006   63 Bunker C
Westwood Anette Squamish, B.C. Aug. 5, 2006   243 Bunker C
Kinder Morgan Pipeline Burnaby, B.C. and Burrard Inlet July 24, 2007   1,474 Crude oil
Leroy Trucking (barge) Robson Bight, Johnstone Strait Aug. 20, 2007 85 Unknown Diesel, gas, motor oil

Expansion Projects< /br>Several plans are under consideration to expand port infrastructures for an increasing number of cargo and container vessels, and cruise ships. Several mega-projects have recently been proposed to build pipelines through northern British Columbia to move oil and petro-chemical products between the Alberta tar sands and B.C.'s North Coast ports. Some projects are already under construction while others are seeking financing and/or environmental assessment.

  • Enbridge Inc. plans to build two parallel pipelines running between Kitimat and the tar sands. Tankers carrying condensate and oil would travel through Dixon Entrance and Hecate Strait to a marine terminal in Kitimat. Pipelines would be constructed to move 400,000 barrels of oil per day from the tar sands to Kitimat, as well as 150,000 barrels of condensate from Kitimat to the tar sands. If approved this project would result in at least 150 tankers passing through the Inside Passage each year.
  • Prince Rupert could become Canada's second largest container vessel terminal, capable of handling the largest container vessels in the world.
  • Trans Mountain Pipeline transports oil via pipeline from Alberta and northeastern B.C. to the west coast; some of the oil is delivered to the Chevron Refinery and Kinder Morgan's Westridge Marine Terminal on Burrard Inlet for export, mainly to California. Kinder Morgan plans to expand their pipeline's capacity resulting in either larger tankers or more tanker traffic travelling in and out of the busy waters around Vancouver.
  • Kinder Morgan proposes to expand its B.C. pipeline system from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat where crude oil would be loaded onto tankers for export. This project could require as many as 14 tankers per month to load oil in Kitimat.
  • Encana's Methanex terminal in Kitimat received the first delivery of condensate by tanker in May 2006 with the approval of Transport Canada and without public consultations. Condensate is presently sent by railcar to Alberta where it is used to thin the tar sands oil so it can be moved through pipelines. Encana has proposed to build a pipeline to transport condensate to the tar sands that has been offloaded from tankers in Kitimat. Increased storage capacity at the terminal will result in approximately four times the current vessel traffic per year (7-9 vessels to an expected 32 vessels).
  • Proposals to build Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) importing and exporting terminals could see 90 carriers per year arriving at Kitimat and 36 per year at Texada Island. There are no LNG carriers on B.C.'s coast at present. LNG in containment is relatively involatile, but once released it immediately begins to vaporize, then becomes flammable and explosive.

The combined increase in traffic at the Kitimat Terminal if all proposed projects were developed would bring an estimated 300 tankers per year into inside coastal waters. The majority of vessels would be large, ocean-going commercial vessels.