British Columbia

Transport Canada OK's Northern Gateway supertankers

Transport Canada has "no regulatory concerns" with Enbridge's proposed marine operations for the Northern Gateway pipeline, clearing the way for supertankers to carry Canadian crude across the Pacific.

Fishing advocates say human error a real threat

Tankers would use Douglas Channel to gain access to the terminus of Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline at Kitimat, B.C. Opponents fear the tankers and pipeline would lead to oil spills. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Transport Canada has "no regulatory concerns" with Enbridge's proposed marine operations for the Northern Gateway pipeline, clearing the way for supertankers to carry Canadian crude across the Pacific.

Thursday, Transport Canada told the federal Joint Review Panel examining the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, that it had finished its review of the proposed tanker traffic that would sail through waters off B.C.'s North Coast, taking crude from the Alberta oilsands to overseas markets in China.

"While there will always be residual risk in any project, after reviewing the proponent's studies and taking into account the proponent's commitments, no regulatory concerns have been identified for the vessels, vessel operations, the proposed routes, navigability, other waterway users and the marine terminal operations associated with vessels supporting the Northern Gateway Project," reads the Transport Canada review.

The $5.5-billion project would see an additional 250 oil tankers arriving at Kitimat each year, which means Transport Canada would have to step up its monitoring, the report said.

Northern Gateway has attracted fierce opposition from First Nations, environmental and other groups who fear an oil spill from the pipeline itself or from tankers sailing through narrow coastal channels could cause grave ecological harm.

"The proposed shipping routes are appropriate for the oil tankers that will be used at the proposed terminal," said the report, adding "there are no charted obstructions that would pose a safety hazard to fully loaded oil tankers."

Fishing advocates worry about human error

The marine operations review was signed off on by Transport Canada, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and Pacific Pilotage Authority Canada.

It does point out there are some narrow areas where extra caution is needed for two-way traffic. It also said there may be an increased threat to marine mammals, such as whales, along the shipping route, and encourages Enbridge to take steps to minimize harm.

But Prince Rupert fishing advocates say the potential for human error is too great, and because of that, locals will continue to oppose the project.

"It exists, it will happen. That's a reality and each and every time that is the deciding factor," said Des Nobels with the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation.

"So, as safe as any shipping lane is, it's only as safe as any individual driving down it. The whole question of a spill is not a question of if, it's a question of when," said Nobels.

But Enbridge says the Transport Canada endorsement shows the company has done due diligence when it comes to safety for all shipping on B.C.'s North Coast.

"It is important for the public, particularly B.C. residents, to know that we've done our homework and that our marine plan has been thoroughly reviewed," said Janet Holder, Enbridge's senior executive with responsibility for the Northern Gateway Project.

"I think the TERMPOL report underlines that what we are proposing is well planned and safe, and indeed would enhance safety for all shipping on B.C.'s North Coast," said Holder. 

Kitimat port safest option, says Enbridge CEO

The Northern Gateway Project consists of twin pipelines — one that would carry 525,000 barrels per day of oilsands crude westward for export, and one that would bring 193,000 barrels per day of imported condensates inland for use in the oilsands.

The company has been asked repeatedly why it didn't instead opt to end the pipeline at Prince Rupert, which has a shorter route to open ocean than does Kitimat.

On Enbridge's most recent quarterly conference call, CEO Pat Daniel said the company would look at other options, but that it's convinced its route to Kitimat is the safest one.

A federal government joint review panel examining the Northern Gateway Project has been making stops across Alberta and B.C. since January, and will be in Old Masset in Haida Gwaii beginning Feb. 28.

The joint review panel will consider Transport Canada's study of the supertanker marine route when making its recommendation on the proposed pipeline.

With files from the Canadian Press