Under the Radar: the Kinder Morgan Pipeline

The proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion would see tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet climb from five to 34 ships a month

Kinder Morgan’s proposal to nearly triple the capacity of its oil pipeline to Burnaby would see seven times as many tankers regularly traversing Burrard Inlet. Why is nobody talking about alternatives?

With Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker project on life support and opposition growing daily (how do you fight Paul Simon?), we can expect attention to shift soon to the Kinder Morgan proposal to expand its existing Edmonton-to-Burnaby pipeline to fill in the void.

Built in the 1950s, the Trans Mountain Pipeline has been carrying crude oil and refined products from Alberta to Burnaby for 60 years now. The pipeline system used to feed four Vancouver refineries (now there’s only one), and through a spur line near Sumas, refineries in Washington state.

Other than the infamous 2007 backhoe incursion in Burnaby and a few similar spills in Abbotsford, the pipeline system has not had a lot of trouble. And there hasn’t been a single spill in nearly 60 years from the oil tankers that load up at the Westridge Terminal to ship oil to U.S. and Asian markets.

But Kinder Morgan is going forward with an ambitious $5.4-billion  expansion program that would see the pipeline’s capacity grow from the current 300,000 barrels of oil a day to 890,000 barrels a day. Given that the demands of the Chevron refinery the Washington refineries are fairly constant, you can safely assume that most of that increased volume will be oil sands bitumen heading for Asian markets.

As part of the proposal, the oil storage-tank farms in Burnaby and Sumas will both be expanded, as will Burnaby’s Westridge Marine Terminal. Oil tanker traffic would climb from the current five ships a month to 34 ships a month, which would comprise 14 per cent of Port Metro’s total ship traffic.

Needless to say, the opposition to this project is fierce, coming not just from the usual gang of suspects (the environment movement) but from all the surrounding municipalities, including Vancouver and Burnaby. Add to that First Nations opposition, and you could argue that Kinder Morgan has challenges very similar to Enbridge’s. The only real difference is that Kinder Morgan already has a pipe in the ground and a right-of-way to put more pipe in the ground.

So the question is, why does Kinder Morgan insist on running this expansion through existing facilities at Westridge? Why not develop an oil-loading facility at, say, Roberts Bank. Or if that won’t fly, look at Anacortes or Cherry Point in Washington. Clearly, money is a big part of the answer, but I wonder if the company has fully explored all the advantages:

• Oil tanker traffic in Vancouver would go from five a month to zero a month. Vancouver would be happy, and so would the First Nations.

• Westridge would shut down, and all the oil-storage tanks would be gone. Burnaby would be happy.

• Roberts Bank, Cherry Point, Anacortes: all could handle much bigger ships than Westridge, which is limited by the Second Narrows channel. Rosario Strait already sees 500 tankers a year; no one would notice a handful more.

I asked Kinder Morgan about putting alternative shipping options on the table, and here’s the answer I got via e-mail:

“Given the current terminal’s proximity to the existing pipe, its proximity to a working harbour with spill response resources and well established tanker transit routes and protocols, we feel Westridge terminal is the safest location that will also result in the least environmental impact.”

Good luck with that.