SEATTLE — Chinese firms have invested $15 billion into developing the Alberta oil sands.
Oil from Alberta can be delivered to this emerging Asian market in several different ways.
Option one was the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have sent 500,000 barrels a day from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. That proposal has been shelved for now.
Here’s option two: pipe it from Alberta across Western Canada to the coast. Then tanker it to foreign markets.
There is already a pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver that’s been transporting oil for more than 50 years. Now, KinderMorgan - the company that owns the pipeline - is calling to increase capacity to as much as 700,000 barrels a day.
Tanker traffic coming out of Vancouver has tripled since 2005. And KinderMorgan predicts a more rapid increase in the next 5 years.
Those tankers will be making their way out of Vancouver via the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Sheila Malcolmson is the chair of the Islands Trust, a governmental agency in British Columbia. They’ve been assessing the issue of tanker traffic and are realizing Canada may be biting off more than it can chew. “Everything that we dig into and our staff dig into they just keep coming back to us and saying, it’s actually worse than we thought,” Malcolmson says. “We are increasingly concerned that the impacts of a spill on our area could be way more than we’re ready to manage.”
The oil coming out of Alberta is a horse of a different color. It’s called bitumen and instead of light crude it’s sandy coarse stuff that doesn’t necessarily float if it ends up in the water.
That has Malcolmson and others concerned.
“At this point we can only ask questions. It’s really a new world and there doesn’t seem to be a confident body of knowledge anywhere.”
A spokeswoman from KinderMorgan said it was too soon to comment on the Keystone Pipeline decision or what it could mean for tanker traffic in the northwest.
The state of Washington funds its oil preparedness program through a tax of 5 cents per barrel on oil that’s tankered into Washington to be refined.
If more oil is being shipped out of Vancouver directly to foreign markets, that means the risk that a spill could spread into Washington waters goes up but the funding to support spill response does not.