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Marine and oil expert's alarming critique of proposed Enbridge pipeline

Alexis Stoymenoff, Vancouver Observer, Apr 23rd, 2012

First let me say that my background is all in the Marine industry, first as a professional Master Mariner with worldwide seagoing experience and secondly ashore in ship management.

Photo courtesy of Capt. Mal Walsh

As regards the transportation of crude by pipeline, I hold no negative opinion. Many, many thousands of miles of pipeline have been laid around the world and in general it has been proven to be the safest method per ton/mile available.

Tanker traffic sadly has not been as fortunate, as when problems occur they result in a catastrophic and large release of oil into the ocean—and thence to the land. There is no defence against the arrival of crude oil or worse still, bitumen, onto the shoreline. Do not be misled by the falsehood of “double hulled tankers” as a safeguard.

Kitimat operates a port situated over 100 nautical miles from the open hostile waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound and the Dixon Entrance. It is reached through navigationally difficult and narrow channels, and clearly represents a cheaper fix for the pipeline termination point for tar sands bitumen export. It shows again the lack of respect given to the power of the sea and the vagaries of human error or mechanical breakdown.

In the world “Guide to Port Entry”, the port of Kitimat indicates size and draft limitations for vessels far below what’s required for the operation of the Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) this project will need. Tankers coming in to meet the Northern Gateway pipeline terminal are expected to be of the VLCC type, each with a carrying capacity of at least 250,000 dwt (deadweight tons).

“Smaller” tankers (50,000 dwt) have been entering the port for years, importing the condensate for rail transport to the tar sands. In this much smaller operation it should be asked what standard of vessel has been used, and how many required Port State Inspections have been done by the Canadian Coast Guard under their international obligations. If the inspections have been done, what are the results? And why not publish this data on the web?

The issue here is why BC would ever want this great risk to their wild West coast. Consider that we are talking about at least an additional 250 VLCC tanker movements a year.

Residents of the South coast have experienced severe winter gales this year and the central coast gets them in spades. Do we really think that the high level of shipping proposed would operate without problems, year in and year out? And this is not only considering the narrow channels of the port approach, but even more critically in the open ocean of the offshore approaches to the coast.

To put all this in context, just go to Google Earth and look at the area in question. Arrivals and departures from the North are via the Dixon Entrance, and then are advised by expert local pilots through the 140 nautical miles of the Browning Entrance, Grenville Channel and Douglas Channels.

From the South, vessels enter via the Queen Charlotte Sound into the Laredo Sound, Laredo Channel Whale or Squally Channels to the Douglas channel. All channels involve major hazards to navigation for large vessels and poorly managed ones (like the Queen of the North), as an examination of the navigation detail charts will show.

Neither of these routes could be considered easy or safe for continuous tanker traffic, let alone the large crude carriers required to meet economic shipping rates.

This is a compulsory pilotage area, and movement of ships into and out of the port fall under the direction of the West Coast Marine Pilots Association. This means that highly skilled marine pilots must be onboard any vessel traveling in the zone, using specialized knowledge and experience to guide the ship through particularly difficult passages.

These pilots are highly trained professionals; however they are there in an advisory capacity to the ship’s Master even when directing operations. Also consider that they board a strange vessel, often in the dark of night and ugly weather, to deal with an unknown crew where language can present its own difficulties to an already stressful job. Do not ask them to be your defence against disaster.


Now consider what I understand as the loose proposal from Enbridge: two escort tugs per supertanker. These tugs would need to be connected at both the bow and stern of the tanker to assist navigation in the narrow channels and tight turns, and to provide control of the vessels if faced with mechanical problems, weather, tide or sheer fright. Will they be connected? My guess is not.

This is a wild coast—and I mean wild in weather and pure wildness. Dialing 911 or calling “mayday” will not get you much. Enbridge intends to bring in hundreds of additional supertanker visits to the port.

So if we are crazy enough to think we can do this and it is worth it all for British Columbia, its people, its coast, and the world at large, please consider the following:


  • These tugs would have to have a minimum of 120 tons Bollard Pull each (the marine term for a tug’s pulling capacity) and they would have to be tractor type tugs capable of operation in all sea conditions—including the open Sounds. Ideally, tugs should have 150 tons Bollard Pull.
  • A fleet of at least three tugs would be required for each tanker (one on standby), with a one-tanker movement at a time restriction.
  • These vessels are not the docking tugs we see in Vancouver or Victoria assisting vessels, but much larger.
  • Further and beyond these tugs, additional high power (170-ton Bollard Pull) rescue and salvage tugs should be stationed to respond to vessels in difficulties in the offshore waters. A loaded, disabled 250,000-ton tanker in adverse conditions off the West Coast will represent a huge challenge to even the best-trained salvage tug crew. (As master of such a vessel I know what it takes)


  • Tankers would have to be of the latest design and meeting all International Maritime Organization requirements. They must never be older than 10 years, and must be retained in the same Management and Ownership as when contracted. Believe me, there is reason for this requirement.
  • High strength tow points capable to withstand the full pulling power of the assist tugs would need to be installed on the bow and stern of each tanker.
  • Ownership of the crude cargo must remain that of the oil Producer, as with all pollution liability (potentially millions of dollars), until delivered overseas. This liability must not be loaded Free on Board (F.O.B) at Kitimat—shifting risk from seller to buyer—as planned.
  • Port State Inspection and oversight of the standards agreed for operations must be in continuous audit, by a fully funded Canadian Coast Guard ships safety division.

Now just when you are getting fed up with me going on, let’s not forget the returning tankers carrying “ballast”. Yes, they will load on water ballast overseas to allow a safe passage back to Kitimat, and you better hope they do not try discharging that water as they approach the loading terminal.

Why? Well, think of the Great Lakes and what happened there—transport ships brought a number of invasive species into Canadian waters from overseas, to the severe detriment of local ecosystems.

Now Enbridge will tell us they will pump the ballast ashore, where it will be “treated” before discharge into the Sound – ugh. So you see, we export crud and get back contaminated water to kill off sea life at the head of the Sound. Daily no less.

I could go on and on, but I hope you get the picture. These safeguards are not going to happen. 

Why not? Because the costs are too high, the producers of the bitumen will not accept the liability of the crude, and the Coast Guard has no capability now, let alone for this task. It NEVER has; everything gets watered down in the final application, and the environment suffers and the Canadian taxpayer foots the bills.

Yes it is said that the Coast Guard has “approved” the project, but in fairness they have not, nor are they required to do so. They simply will state the vessels must comply with requirements of Canadian and international regulations.

Transport Canada has concluded a technical review, which basically says that they have accepted the proposed terminal operating plans by Enbridge—assuming that the commitment to provide additional support services over and above the minimum required by regulation (tugs etc) will be upheld. Good luck with that one!  Escort tugs are required in the Haro Straits for tankers out of Vancouver, but has that been adhered to?

The Coast Guard’s ship safety branch is a sad remnant of what it was 30 years ago, and as a branch of Transport Canada it is policed by bureaucrats. The agency lacks the operational marine staff to adequately carry out the kind of oversight and review that might be expected by the public. (Think train derailments as an example of the rush to allow a “self inspection safety systems” approach)

Has a Hazard Identification (HAZID) or a Hazard and Operability (HAZOP) study been done? Who had input, where are the results? 

The plan to run tankers from Kitimat is a train wreck waiting to happen. And it will not result in cheaper gas at the pumps.

Now if we must do it, then lets do it out of the Port of Vancouver. All the facilities already exist and can be expanded to handle the larger tanker traffic required.

Captain Mal Walsh is a Master Mariner from Comox, BC. He has over 40 years of experience in the international oil exploration and shipping industry—both commanding vessels on the seas and working ashore in management. He served on deep-sea ships in the British Merchant Navy before working in the offshore oil industry in the North Sea. When he came to Canada, he worked for Dome Petroleum during their exploration in the Beaufort Sea then came ashore and became General Manager of Marine and Environmental Services with Canadian Marine Drilling (CANMAR).

This letter was written to express Captain Walsh’s professional concerns about the proposed tanker routes associated with the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline terminal in Kitimat, BC.


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