Skip to content

OIL & WATER-Part One: How safe are oil tankers travelling southern B.C. waters?

With Kinder Morgan Canada hoping to twin its pipeline and greatly boost tanker traffic, how safe are local waters from a catastrophic spill?
The 249-metre Everest Spirit makes its way to the Second Narrows Bridge in Burrard Inlet

Kinder Morgan Canada announced this month that it will seek to twin its Trans Mountain Pipeline between northern Alberta and Burnaby. The twinning would mean a huge increase in the amount of crude that transits the pipeline, and in the number of oil tankers passing through local waters each year. This is the first of a three-part Black Press series looking at the logistics, risks, and politics involved.


The Everest Spirit, an oil tanker the length of two and a half football fields, nudges slowly under the Second Narrows Bridge.

In its bowels is enough crude oil to fill more than 30 Olympic swimming pools, loading it down so that it sits 13 metres deep in the water, close to the carefully prescribed maximum safe draft for the narrow, shallow channel.

The ship is one of 32 tankers that last year loaded crude from Burnaby’s Westridge terminal, the end of an 1,100-kilometre pipeline that runs from northern Alberta southwest across B.C. to the Pacific.

But Kinder Morgan, which owns the Trans Mountain pipeline, has big plans to turn the current trickle of oil through Vancouver’s harbour into a gusher.

The company announced this month it will seek approval to twin the pipeline and increase its current 300,000-barrel-per-day capacity to as much as 850,000.

Some would continue to flow to refineries in Burnaby and Washington State. But export oil bound for tankers is projected to soar from a current 80,000 barrels per day to as much as 550,000 if the project proceeds.

The number of tankers filling up in Burnaby could hit 360 in 2016, five times more than the record 69 crude tankers in 2010.

That prospect has alarmed environmentalists who worry the risk of a catastrophic spill is increasing and say Metro Vancouverites never signed on to become Alberta’s oil port.

“People are terrified about this,” said Georgia Strait Alliance executive director Christianne Wilhelmson.

“If an accident happens, we live here. We’re going to lose our orcas. We’re going to lose our salmon. We’re going to lose our businesses that rely on a pristine environment.

“It’s simply not worth the risk.”


The tankers move in the harbour with extensive safeguards.

On this February day, the 249-metre Everest Spirit is harnessed to one tugboat in front of it and two tugs at the rear – together they have enough pulling power to keep the massive tanker on course no matter what might go wrong with its engines or steering.

Large loaded tankers must be accompanied by three tugs from Westridge through the Second Narrows and past the Lions Gate Bridge to English Bay.

After that, tankers proceed unaccompanied southeast through the Strait of Georgia to Saturna Island, where they’re met again by Vancouver Island-based tugs that accompany them through the currents of Boundary Pass and Haro Strait until they pass Race Rocks and reach the wider waters of Juan de Fuca Strait between Victoria and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Agencies on both sides of the border watch for any deviation from the defined shipping lane, which largely follows the international boundary.

And a U.S. rescue tug based out of Neah Bay can scramble if any ship loses power and drifts towards rocks or shoreline.

Many hands and eyes guide the boat on the bridge.

The tankers are required to sail with two pilots – highly trained experts on local waters – in addition to the ship’s captain and navigation officer.

The pilots, who actually command the vessel, don’t depend on the ship’s instruments – they bring their own laptops for GPS navigation and charting.

One monitors instruments and calls out any deviations from the precision course through the Second Narrows, while the other actually steers and monitors other conditions, such as wind and current.

If one of the tugs failed, the other two – or even just one larger tug – could control the tanker and tow it to safe anchorage, says Pacific Pilotage Authority president and CEO Kevin Obermeyer.

“It really is overkill,” he said. “But it’s overkill for a good reason.”

MAP: As oil tankers travel between Burrard Inlet and the open ocean, they pass between the San Juan and Gulf Islands. They are accompanied by tug boats for part of the journey, and local pilots command the ship at all times.

Other regulations also apply.

Tankers only move in daylight with a minimum of one mile visibility, at a maximum of six knots, and only pass through the Second Narrows at slack tide.

And loaded tankers have the channel to themselves – all other ships must wait – all but eliminating the risk of collision.

“The tankers are probably the most protected species out there,” Obermeyer said.

Some of the rules stem from an incident in 1978 when the freighter Japan Erica hit the Second Narrows railway bridge in heavy fog. Pilots train for disaster using simulators, but the pilotage authority has also staged live harbour tests to verify that tugs can indeed control an errant tanker with an engine or rudder failure.

Unlike the single-hulled Exxon Valdez, which spilled more than 230,000 barrels off Alaska in 1989, all tankers loading here must be double-hulled.

That’s no panacea – double-hulled tankers have also breached and spilled – but it’s another improvement shipping defenders point to as evidence the times have changed.

Indeed, through most of B.C.’s century-long history of safely moving oil on water, tankers did not have the benefit of tugs, pilots or modern navigational aids like GPS.

That trend is borne out in worldwide tanker accident statistics, which show spills in the 2000s released about a quarter as much oil  as they did in the two previous decades and about one twelfth as much as the 1970s.

“I would say it’s extremely safe,” Obermeyer said. “Can I say we would never have an accident? No, I can’t say that.”


So far, the largest tankers loading at Westridge are Afraxmax class tankers like the Everest Spirit, which have a maximum capacity of 650,000 barrels.

In practice, they have been loaded to no more than 80 per cent full due to the draft limit – how deep they can sit in the water without coming too close to the seabed in the Second Narrows.

Previously, tankers were allowed to load to 12.5 metres, but in 2010 the Pacific Pilotage Authority increased the draft limit to 13.5 metres.

Ships haven’t yet loaded to that full depth – they’ve held back at around 13 metres to date – but they’re expected to start going all the way later this spring, allowing more oil to be carried.

Still bigger ships may come if Kinder Morgan twins the pipeline.

The company has indicated it may seek permission to use giant Suezmax tankers that carry up to one million barrels – half again as much as Aframax tankers.

The Second Narrows would have be dredged deeper to accommodate them and shipping authorities say all the other tanker safety requirements would have to be reviewed and possibly strengthened.

Dredging would be targeted at the edges of the channel – not actually increasing its maximum depth – and would be subject to an environmental review, according to Port Metro Vancouver harbour master Yoss Leclerc.

“We’re not talking about huge dredging volumes,” he said. “We are used to dredging in the river. This is nothing comparable to that.”


  • 2007 – 37 tankers
  • 2008 – 42
  • 2009 – 65
  • 2010 – 69
  • 2011 – 32
  • 2016 – 360 (estimated)

Nor is it a certainty Suezmax tankers will come if Kinder Morgan twins its pipe.

“They could do it with the Aframax,” Leclerc said. “The twinning doesn’t necessarily mean bigger ships are coming here.”

Switching to the bigger capacity of Suezmax would be more efficient, cutting a shipper’s cost by about $1.50 a barrel.

They’re also preferable for voyages to Asia, rather than California, the destination of most of Vancouver’s exported oil so far.

Even if bigger tankers are permitted, smaller Aframax and Panamax ones would continue to come as well, because shippers have to match entry limits at destination ports that don’t take larger sizes.

A former tanker captain himself, Leclerc says there are plenty of water ways in the world that are narrower but heavily used by tankers.

Gibraltar sees more tankers each day than the Second Narrows does in a year, he said.

“What we have here is really the leading edge in terms of safety and security,” Leclerc said.


There are other potential danger points along the tanker route.

A Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force report in 2011 said there are risks associated with anchorages in the Gulf Islands where tankers might hole up during a storm.

It notes a bulk carrier in 2009 dragged anchor in high winds and was blown onto a rocky reef near Mayne Island.

“No oil was spilled, but the risk was high,” the report said.

Capital Regional District director Mike Hicks argues there’s a serious risk of a collision at the western entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait, where ships converge in a narrower lane and local pilots are not required. He says any spill there would be disastrous to Swiftsure Bank, an area rich in sea life.

The task force report says much has been done to reduce oil spill risks by authorities on both sides of the border.

But it says more is still required to improve international coordination of spill responses.

B.C. Chamber of Commerce president John Winter said he’s seen nothing yet to justify opposing Kinder Morgan’s plan for expanded oil exports.

“The track record is excellent,” he said. “Most of the people opposed to it never knew there was tanker traffic in the first place.

“There’s risk in doing everything. If measures are put in place to minimize those risks to the extent possible I would think the review bodies will have no choice but to approve it.”

Environmental groups are not convinced, arguing the much greater number of tankers – potentially much bigger ones running deeper in the water than ever before – exposes the B.C. coast to much more danger.

“They’re increasing the risk dramatically,” said Wilhelmson of the Georgia Strait Alliance.

Nor is there comfort that B.C.’s tanker shipments have been safe to date.

“They’ve been lucky,” she said. “So far they haven’t had a spill. We’re overdue.”


A Black Press series exploring the logistics, risks and politics of Kinder Morgan's proposed oil pipeline expansion.PART 1:

How safe are oil tankers travelling southern B.C. waters?

Notable accidents involving oil

Boaters concerned about more oil tanker traffic coming to Burrard Inlet

Airlines pursue Richmond pipeline to satisfy growth


What happens if there’s an oil spill in B.C.?

‘People of the Inlet’ oppose Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion


Is B.C. destined to be Alberta's oil superport?

Burnaby company in the business of disaster response

Series team members on Twitter: Jeff Nagel, Wanda Chow, Todd Coyne, Sean Kolenko, Matt Hoekstra, Mario Bartel, Tom Fletcher & Chris Bryan