Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Tar Sands Tankers in U.S. Waters

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While I was polishing up last night’s post on Marc Garneau’s incredible claims about how safe we will be once the tankers moving diluted bitumen start moving, the following arrived in my in box.

As I am sure you are all aware, there are very few refineries set up to deal with diluted bitumen – or even heavy oil – and none at all in China. While the pipeline proponents blether about finding new markets for the tarsands, the reality is that dilbit will go to where they can refine it.screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-57-12-am

Picture from The Common Sense Canadian

And once again in the interests of getting information out there – since the CBC story about the tankers did not once mention dilbit – here is the entire press release:


NRDC Report: Tar Sands Tankers in U.S. Waters Could Skyrocket 12-Fold Under Canadian Producers’ Plans

A flood of dirty oil and possible damaging spills in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mississippi River threatens iconic species, tourism and communities; also would increase climate pollution double Keystone XL’s

WASHINGTON (December 7, 2016) – Canadian oil producers have roared back from President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline with a scheme to send hundreds of tar sands-laden oil tankers and barges down the East and West coasts and the Mississippi River, the Natural Resources Defense Council warned in a report released today.

Under their plans, tar sands tankers and barges traveling U.S. waterways could skyrocket from fewer than 80 to more than 1,000 a year—dramatically increasing the chance of devastating spills.

That, according to the report, would put the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, including the Salish Sea, San Francisco Bay, the Gulf of Maine, the Hudson and Columbia rivers, the Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Keys, at risk for costly spills for which there is no known effective cleanup technology. In addition, as many as 130 tar sands barges per year could travel on the Mississippi River, which today sees almost no such traffic.

The potential for destructive tar sands spills endangers hundreds of inland and coastal communities. And it puts at risk multibillion tourism and fishing industries, along with protected ocean preserves and abundant marine life; including whales, dolphins and unique deep-sea creatures.

“Canadian oil producers have a scheme to flood us with dangerous tar sands oil. Their hopes to send hundreds of millions of barrels of tar sands oil into U.S. waters are truly alarming. We can’t let them endanger American livelihoods, our most iconic and threatened species, or our beautiful wild places with these irresponsible plans,” said Joshua Axelrod, lead author of NRDC’s report.

“The risks and costs created by possible tar sands spills are so substantial that local, state and federal governments should take immediate action,” added Axelrod, policy analyst for NRDC’s Canada Project. “Protecting the public, communities and the environment from a plague of dangerous tar sands oil on U.S. waterways should be their top priority.”

If all that wasn’t bad enough, the climate impact of the planned tar sands development would be severe. Expanded production would destroy a large swath of Canada’s boreal forest—a carbon storehouse that helps to mitigate climate change. And burning all the tar sands oil that the industry seeks to develop would add 362 million metric tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere each year—twice as much as Keystone XL’s tar sands would have contributed.

NRDC released the report, “The Tar Sands Tanker Threat: American Waterways in Industry’s Sights,” in a telephone-based press conference. Joining Axelrod for the event was: Stephanie Buffum, executive director at Friends of the San Juans; Michael Riordan, physicist and resident of Orcas Island; and Jewell James, a Lummi Nation representative and fisherman on the Salish Sea.

It outlines plans by Canadian producers to excavate tar sands oil from forests in northern Alberta and use four new pipeline and rail operations—and existing infrastructure on the Mississippi River—to move tar sands oil by tanker and barge down the coasts and on the Columbia, Hudson, and Mississippi rivers to reach heavy oil refinery operations in the Mid-Atlantic, Gulf coast and California.

Canadian producers are pressing ahead with these expansion plans, despite climate realities and findings like those in a 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences that tar sands crude has unique physical properties leading to extreme clean-up challenges, including missing tools and technology that could clean the heavy, toxic oil in the event of a spill.

It’s notable that six years after a tar sands pipeline spill fouled Michigan’s Kalamazoo River and created a billion-dollar cleanup effort, the river is still contaminated.

The tar sands threat outlined in NRDC’s report isn’t theoretical. Just recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion, which would increase oil tanker traffic by 600 percent in the already-congested Salish Sea between Washington state and British Columbia.

If the pipeline is built, much of this traffic is expected to move south along the U.S. west coast to California heavy-oil refineries. Scientists contend the project is a death sentence for the region’s beloved Killer Whale population.

“The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, just approved by Canada’s Prime Minister, would significantly increase tar sands tanker traffic and oil spill risk in the Salish Sea,” said Lovell Pratt, an expert in marine vessels and resident of San Juan Island. “According to a vessel traffic analysis, the project would cause an 800% increase in the risk of a major tar sands oil spill over the next ten years in Haro Strait and Boundary Pass—the critical habitat of the region’s highly endangered orca whales.”

NRDC recommends that in light of the tar sands threat:

* State and federal governments should reject vessel response plans for ships transporting tar sands oil because there’s no effective cleanup technology available for handling tar sands spills.
* Local, state and federal governments should take steps to evaluate legal, policy and research priorities to deal with potential tar sands oil spills and their impact on the environment.
* Policymakers in the U.S. and Canada should examine whether tar sands crude can be safely shipped on our rivers and oceans, and how enabling further development of carbon-intensive tar sands oil threatens the climate.

More information about the tar sands tanker and barge threat report is here:

A blog on the issue by Josh Axelrod is here:

More about NRDC’s work related to fossil fuels is here:

An audio recording of the press conference on the tar sands tanker and barge threat will be here:

Earlier this year NRDC released another report “Tar Sands in the Atlantic Ocean: TransCanada’s Proposed Energy East Pipeline,” focusing on TransCanada’s plans for the Energy East pipeline that would dramatically increase tanker traffic along the East Coast. That report is here:


The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 7, 2016 at 11:01 am

3 Responses

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  1. Leaving climate change aside for a moment, this seems to be an attempt at gaming the system to attain approval for access to tidewater they’ve already had since 1952. While it’s true that there doesn’t seem to be a market in Asia for bitumen, what is the real motive? A lot of political capital was spent on this project, which has been incessantly portrayed as vital to the “national interest.” With the export of jobs and profits — if they materialize — just which nationality are they referring to? The US Gulf Coast is where the nearest refineries that are tooled for heavy oil in fairly large volumes are located. Are these tankers heading west, or are they heading south to the Panama Canal?

    The blather about the national interest with respect to the export of filthy raw resources should be questioned for what that actually means. The value added aspects of gearing up a national industrial strategy powered by clean energy (of which we have in abundance) with a focus on long-term R&D, patented intellectual property and the formation of well-funded innovation labs at all our universities would arguably be of far greater value to the national interest.

    Bringing action on climate change forward, this seems to have more urgency than paying political lip service to creating a few sunset industry jobs, which is most frustratingly related to oil exports.

    Alex Botta

    December 8, 2016 at 4:34 pm

  2. A little further information. The 2013 report from the School of Public Policy at the U of Calgary researched refining capacity in Asia for Western Canadian heavy (tar sands) oil and found there is indeed lots of capacity, but that will require some modifications to some plants. There are 17 refineries in China alone that can handle the stuff, which has higher viscosity, sulfur, metals and acid.

    Click to access pacific-basin-hackett-noda-grissom-moore-winter.pdf

    Obtaining actual contracts may be another story because Canadian bitumen will be competing with light sweet crude from the Middle East which is easier and cheaper to refine. Nonetheless, the demand is likely to increase as the stuff comes on stream and world prices escalate once the US shale oil production enters a steep decline phase estimated by David Hughes to be in full reality around 2020. That makes the risk of accidents and spills on the BC South Coast much higher once the Kinder Morgan pipeline is completed and the tanker traffic increases exponentially while Asian markets increase their demand.

    I spoke with Burnaby mayor Derrick Corrigan just yesterday and he is still emphatically willing to be arrested over the KM project, likely along with hundreds of others. First Nations are also gearing up for long court battles. Exports of bitumen from Metro Vancouver are still beset with many challenges. Meanwhile the world price of oil will probably increase inexorably. Given China’s plans to double down on renewable energy as well, which already has made wind and solar very competitive with fossil fuels, and which will likely catalyze it further, one wonders if the world oil price will hit an affordability ceiling where it will be outcompeted, or cause recessions again.

    All this volatility for a non-renewable resource exported in nearly raw form with anemic local job creation ability. Why bother? Why not just switch to an industrial strategy based on our massive abundance in clean renewable energy to innovate and create jobs at home and exportable services and products abroad? Who is running the show anyway?

    Alex Botta

    December 23, 2016 at 10:54 am

  3. And just today I learned “there are dozens of different formulas and the chemical diluent mix is treated as a trade secret by oil companies.”

    This is why it is impossible to establish what the effects of the inevitable oil spill will be. Since it is the oil companies themselves who are concealing this information, government has to adopt the precautionary principle. Needless to say they haven’t.

    Stephen Rees

    December 23, 2016 at 3:22 pm

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