Led by Exxon, several U.S. oil companies are playing a crude waiting game along the West Coast by refusing to convert to double-hulled oil tankers. So far, they are winning. But British Columbia, with its enormous stretch of exposed coastline, risks being a catastrophic loser in this dirty game. And the risks are becoming greater. It's time Canada squawked loudly, before it becomes an oil-soaked victim.
After the Exxon Valdez ripped open on a reef in 1989 and spewed 40 million litres of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, the U.S. Congress promised to clean up the American tanker industry, including ships plying the fogbound and storm-swept route between Valdez, Alaska, and Puget Sound, Wash. All single-hulled tankers were to be replaced by double-hulled ones by 2015, starting first with the largest and oldest ships. Double hulls radically reduce oil spillage in a tanker collision, grounding or other accident. The U.S. Coast Guard recently calculated that the Exxon Valdez spew would have been 60 per cent smaller if the ship had been doubled-hulled.
U.S. law allows only American-built and crewed tankers to carry oil between American ports such as Valdez and Seattle. Cheaper Asian-built and foreign-crewed tankers are banned. An American double-hulled crude carrier can cost $300-million (U.S.). To save money, U.S. oil and tanker companies such as Exxon have decided to wait, stretching their reliance on single-hulled tankers to the 2015 phase-out deadline -- or until Alaska's oil runs out, around the same time. So far, the only thing likely to change the industry mindset is another catastrophe. That, unfortunately, is increasingly likely.
Until 1997, some U.S. tanker owners avoided an early phase-out of their older, larger ships by reducing their volume and theoretically making them smaller and eligible to haul oil for several more years. Congress closed that loophole after 17 tankers sailed through. The rest of the industry, including firms that plied the Alaska route, did nothing. They did not build any double-hulled tankers to replace the single-hulled menaces as they were phased out of service. They largely replaced them with other single-hulled tankers from elsewhere in the U.S. fleet.
Last year, 24 tankers regularly trundled low in the iceberg-studded water out of Valdez. In the 500 trips, the tankers were barely 40 kilometres off the long B.C. coast; they then swung close to Victoria, in the Juan de Fuca Strait, en route to Seattle. Only six were double-hulled. And they were old ships, not replacements.
Not one new double-hulled tanker has been added to the Alaska route since the Exxon Valdez disaster. BP Arco is promising one this year and possibly two more soon. Alaska Tanker Co., Chevron Shipping, Texaco Alaska and Exxon have no commitments to buy or build double-hulled tankers.
The longer the delay, the greater the risk of another Exxon Valdez-style accident. Exxon's SeaRiver Long Beach sprung a hairline fracture in its single hull in May and had to be hastily offloaded again in Valdez. And the risk is increasing exponentially. The number of icebergs in the tanker lanes has increased five-fold since 1980 because of glacier melting, and at least one tanker-berg collision has already occurred, resulting in $1-million in damages to a, fortunately, empty ship. It was icebergs that forced the Exxon Valdez off course and onto the rocks in the 1989 accident.
The U.S. General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency, has uncovered another peril of the waiting game. Well before the end of this decade, as more single-hulled tankers are phased out, there will not be enough double-hulled ones to replace them. And the handful of remaining U.S. shipyards cannot build enough new tankers at the last minute. The option, according to the oil industry, will be foreign single-hulled tankers hauling Alaskan crude partway to Seattle and offloading to barges off the B.C.-Washington shore -- a far less regulated and more risky proposition. One such offloading zone already exists off New England for Middle Eastern crude. Canada caught a taste of the risk in 1988, when the spill from an oil-laden barge off Washington's coast ended up fouling beaches 700 kilometres away on Vancouver Island.
Exxon has already hinted at its other low-cost option: to abandon its declining Alaskan oilfields and resort to offshore crude and foreign single-hulled tankers to supply West Coast U.S. refineries, a choice equally flimsy in terms of sea safety.
Another 15 years of waiting for the U.S. oil industry to run out of single-hulled tankers, or run out of Alaskan oil, isn't worth the risk. Nor is the so-called offshore solution. The oil industry simply cannot plead poor, and Canada should loudly ensure that the U.S. Congress does not plead ignorance, even if Canada has to conduct its own inquiry into Pacific tanker traffic first. Federal Environment Minister David Anderson, a onetime crusader for mandatory double-hulled tankers on the West Coast, should be leading the charge.
Jim Fulton, NDP MP for the B.C. riding of Skeena from 1979 to 1993, is executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation.
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