Now that President Obama has saved the planet from the Keystone XL pipeline, we hope someone’s going to save the Strait of Juan de Fuca from what could be the unintended consequences.
The Keystone project was supposed to carry oil from Alberta’s vast tar sand deposits to U.S. pipelines that would carry the gooey stuff to Gulf Coast refineries. It became the very embodiment of evil for environmentalists who believed that not building it would keep the petroleum in the ground.
Obama appeased them last week by formally denying Keystone XL the permit it needed to cross the U.S.-Canadian border.
What’s actually been keeping tar sand oil in the ground, though, has been the plunge in global crude oil prices. The lower prices have made some extraction projects unprofitable. Otherwise, a rapidly expanding fleet of tanker trains has been filling the gap left from the unbuilt Keystone.
When the price goes back up, the trains will carry more. And diesel-burning trains are dirtier and more prone to spills than state-of-the-art pipelines.
The other downside of obstructing Keystone is the opening it has created for a pipeline that would carry Alberta’s petroleum to our own Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The energy company Kinder Morgan already operates a pipeline running from Alberta to Burnaby, just outside of Vancouver, B.C. After watching Keystone’s troubles, it announced plans to nearly triple the size of its line, from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 a day. Keystone XL would have carried 800,000 a day.
The beauty of this, for Canada’s oil industry, is that it requires no permission from the United States. The Kinder Morgan right-of-way never crosses the border.
What happens after the oil is loaded on tankers is another story. Right now, the Strait of Juan de Fuca sees about five tanker ships a week. If the Kinder Morgan expansion is completed, the traffic would jump alarmingly, to as many as 34 tankers a week.
People at Washington’s Department of Ecology are eyeing this prospect nervously, as they should.
Increasing the shipping by more than six-fold would increase the risk of an accident accordingly. In the Strait, these vessels would be skirting Vancouver Island, but they’d also be skirting Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It’s too easy to imagine a cold-water oil spill that would contaminate fragile marine habitat on either side of the passage.
If Kinder Morgan’s project begins to materialize, Washington will have to take a keen interest in Canada’s safeguards against spills. Canada must be persuaded to expand its capacity to contain them and clean them up.
This oil, in our opinion, should be headed for Gulf refineries in thick-walled, modern pipelines. Tanker trains – which the president implicitly favored last week – are a bad alternative. The Strait of Juan de Fuca, now a real possibility, is the most worrisome of all.