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U.S. to probe B.C. oil tanker expansion plans

The oil tanker Everest Spirit sails in Vancouver Harbour. - File
The oil tanker Everest Spirit sails in Vancouver Harbour.
— image credit: File

U.S. authorities will review the safety of Canadian oil tanker traffic in light of Kinder Morgan's plan to more than double oil exports out of Vancouver harbour by twinning its Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta.

A Coast Guard authorization bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in late December contains amendments by Wash. Senator Maria Cantwell that target the tankers that load in Burnaby and sail along the international boundary through the Southern Gulf Islands and between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula.

Under the new law, the U.S. Coast Guard must conduct a study this year to analyze oil spill risks from additional Canadian tanker traffic through the Salish Sea, placing the Trans Mountain expansion proposal under added scrutiny.

"A supertanker oil spill near our shores would threaten Washington State’s thriving coastal economy and thousands of jobs," Cantwell said in a statement on her website. "This bill will provide crucial information for Washington coastal communities by requiring a detailed risk analysis within 180 days."

The study is to assess the risks of increased traffic due to Canadian oil sands development – particularly whether Vancouver-bound tankers skirt stricter rules and regulations that apply on tankers in U.S. waters heading to Washington refineries.

The law also directs an investigation of "whether oil extracted from oil sands has different properties from other types of oil, including toxicity and other properties, that may require different maritime clean up technologies."

It also questions whether Canadian law is looser on the capacity of oil tankers, spill response capabilities and provisions requiring escort tugs and an emergency standby tug.

A provincial government technical report released last summer previously highlighted each of those as areas where American rules are already stricter and that should be examined as part of B.C.'s insistence on improved safety before the province contemplates approving any new oil pipeline.

Kinder Morgan's $4.3-billion pipeline twinning would increase Trans Mountain's capacity from 300,000 to 750,000 barrels per day, meaning a roughly five-fold increase in tankers  carrying Canadian oil to about 300 per year.

An estimated 600 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges already travel through Puget Sound each year, many of them carrying Alaskan oil to Washington's five refineries.

Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan's pipeline will be the focus of a National Energy Board hearing that gets underway next week in Calgary.

Burnaby's Chevron refinery is seeking priority access to oil flowing through Trans Mountain to protect its supply.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, who opposes the pipeline expansion, has intervenor status at the Jan. 15 hearing and will be supporting Chevron's request, adding a Chinese or American refinery might otherwise buy up all of the oil Kinder Morgan can carry, at a cost of local jobs and potentially higher gas prices here.

"I'm going to say it's in the public interest," Corrigan said. "If we don't continue to supply Chevron, they'll close and then we'll have to ship all our oil out to a foreign refinery and then import it back by tankers."

At least one Washington refiner is expected to oppose Chevron's request.

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