Vancouver wants seat at the table at Kinder Morgan pipeline hearings

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Vancouver will apply for intervener status to participate in the National Energy Board hearings next spring into Kinder Morgan’s plan to twin its Trans Mountain pipeline to the Lower Mainland.

Saying the city has “grave concerns” about the ability of regulators and oil carriers to respond to a spill, let alone deal with a major increase of oil tanker traffic if the pipeline is twinned, Mayor Gregor Robertson said the city will oppose the expansion.

But even then, the mayor said he’s not satisfied with the limitations the NEB has put on the hearings to consider only issues relating to the pipeline or downstream marine transportation. He also believes it should consider the effects of climate change related to the use of the fossil fuels carried by the pipeline.

Vancouver has little real power to stop the twinning of a pipeline or expansion of oil tanker traffic through its port, deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston told city council Wednesday. But he said the city does have the right to appear as an intervener in the NEB hearings, which “gives us a seat at the table” and “allows the city to ask questions of the proponent that others won’t ask.”

Metro Vancouver, whose council also has concerns about the proposal, is also considering applying for intervener status.

Kinder Morgan is seeking to twin its pipeline from Edmonton to its Westridge oil terminal in Burnaby to increase capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day. Johnston said that would increase tanker traffic through Vancouver’s harbour from five to 34 per month.

Johnston painted a stark picture of the current state of oil spill response measures in B.C., saying it is largely inadequate and ill-defined. With industry and government cleanup and recovery funds capped at around $1.3 billion — and with recent examples of major spills far exceeding that amount — the cost of cleaning up would largely be borne by local governments and their residents.

Vancouver’s $108 billion-a-year economy, from tourism to Port Metro industries to the value of its international brand, would be put in jeopardy by a major spill.

“A major spill would have a profoundly negative economic impact for the city, its residents and businesses,” he said. “Both direct and indirect costs would impact the city and it is difficult to estimate the size of these costs as they will depend on the spill.”

Johnston’s comments come a day after a federal panel said Canada’s oil spill response lacks leadership and isn’t prepared for disasters in high-risk areas like southern B.C. A B.C. government spill response study for the West Coast issued recently also had similar findings, although it did not look at the potential for spills in urban areas.

Robertson tabled a notice of motion recommending the city apply for intervener status. There is little doubt the motion will be ratified by the Vision Vancouver-dominated council at a committee meeting Dec. 18 after the politicians hear from the public.

Vision’s green-based politicians, who are in the middle of a campaign to make the city the greenest in the world by 2020, have made no secret of the fact they dislike the oil industry and the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. They asked Johnston and the Vancouver Economic Commission to comment on the risks the city faces from Kinder Morgan’s proposal. Robertson has raised the image in the past of a tanker oil spill fouling Stanley Park and English Bay beaches.

Johnston said the agencies that would have to respond to a spill today do not clearly understand their roles and there is a lack of information available for first responders about the kinds of products being carried in pipelines. The line would carry as many as 52 different products, all of which behave differently if spilled, he said.

“It is unclear who is responsible for doing what. Even the agencies involved in the response, when we asked them these questions, can’t answer who is responsible for what parts of this,” Johnston told council.

Even more alarming, he said, is that under international law it is the captain of the ship and the ship’s owner who are supposed to be in charge of a response. That could lead to the surreal circumstance that “the ship captain, likely with very little knowledge of the local environment and partners (and who may not) speak English and the shipping company are expected to manage the response at the time of event,” he said.

“So our entire economy, or much of it, and the health of the ecosystem, is relying entirely on a ship captain who is not even familiar with our waters to be managing that situation.”

Coun. George Affleck, one of two Non-Partisan Association councillors, noted the report looked only at negative impacts and wanted to know if anything positive might come from the proposed expansion. Johnston said no, not in his view.

“From a Vancouver perspective, we really see the negative impacts above and beyond the positive given that the jobs aren’t here (and) the activities aren’t actually taking place within our jurisdiction. So at this point we don’t see much positive economic impact for the city,” he said.

Johnston’s report is posted on the city’s website. Council will hear public submissions Dec. 18.