Oil sands export plans haunted by Exxon Valdez spill
If not for historic spill, 'We probably wouldn't have a problem,' marine captain says
It has a nefarious lore that the Titanic can’t touch. On March 24, 1989, just after midnight, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The accident didn’t just devastate local ecosystems. It left an indelible mark on the business of shipping crude oil by sea, says Kevin Obermeyer, president and chief executive officer of Canada’s Pacific Pilotage Authority.
Alberta Oil: What is it about oil tankers that make people so uncomfortable?
Kevin Obermeyer: Two words: Exxon. Valdez. If it wasn’t for Exxon Valdez, we probably wouldn’t have a problem. The pity is that nobody has looked at the changes that have taken place since that incident in 1989. There were massive changes. The reason we have double-hulled tankers is because of the Exxon Valdez. The reason we have all the checks on the tankers is because of the Exxon Valdez. Internationally the amount of regulation that all these tankers are subject to is phenomenal.
AO: How does the Douglas Channel near Kitimat, B.C., stack up against the Burrard Inlet to the south?
KO: The two don’t compare. I will not do a VLCC [Very Large Crude Carrier] through Second Narrows. It’s just not going to happen. We don’t believe it’s safe. If you look at the international parameters, you can’t fit a tanker through there.
AO: Isn’t that where tankers depart from Kinder Morgan Canada’s Westridge Marine Terminal?
KO: Kinder Morgan is on the upside of the [Iron Workers Memorial] bridge. All of their tankers pass through two bridges, and have been doing that for 50 years. Right now we’re doing Aframax.
AO: How does an Aframax tanker compare to larger vessels?
KO: You’ve got the Panamax, which is up to 300 meters [long] and 32.2 meters wide, and that fits the present Panama Canal. The Aframax is [called that] not because it goes around Africa. The Aframax carries about 120,000 tonnes and it’s called the average freight rate tanker. Why they came up with that name, don’t ask me. Suezmax is based on the Suez Canal. It’s the biggest that can go through Suez Canal. And then, of course, the VLCC is forced to go around the [southern tip of Africa]. And they are brutes.
AO: Port Metro Vancouver has talked about widening the Second Narrows passage to accommodate larger vessels.
KO: They have. Not for VLCCs [but] Suezmax. Suezmax is a little bigger than an Aframax, but much smaller than a VLCC. Unless they take the rail bridge down, we can’t do it.
AO: Would a VLCC fit in Douglas Channel?
KO: They fit. It goes through Douglas Channel no problem. You can turn it around in Douglas Channel.
AO: Northern Gateway president John Carruthers puts the likelihood of another Valdez-type disaster offshore British Columbia at one in 15,000. How do you like those odds?
KO: I’ve heard that as well. I can’t say I agree with that. It’s a number, but you’ve got to put the Valdez in the past. That was when you had very thin-skinned tankers, with no [marine] pilot [and] no escort tugs in very narrow areas – crazy. That’s never going to happen on our coast. But we can’t get past that.