By Alison Bate

I must admit I was a little surprised not to get a straight answer from Transport Canada at first about the number of tug escorts traveling with condensate tankers into Kitimat.

I assumed it was clearly set down in the legislation whether tankers carrying this kind of hydrocarbon mixture required tug escorts and, if so, how many.

After all, set rules are laid down for laden oil tankers passing through Haro Strait. They are required to travel with tug escorts, as are laden crude oil tankers leaving the port of Vancouver, typically from Kinder Morgan Canada’s Westridge Terminal in Burnaby.

Looking beyond our borders, both Alaska and Washington State also have clear rules requiring laden oil tankers to have escort tugs alongside when passing through the narrow passages of their coastal waters. In some places, these tugs have to be tethered with the tanker.

However, when I called Transport Canada to ask about tug escorts in Douglas Channel, they told me to check with Methanex Corp., as they weren’t sure the details of Methanex’s TERMPOL agreement were public information. After a couple of days, they finally did tell me. The short answer is no: the condensate tankers visiting Methanex don’t have to have tug escorts. (Comments from Methanex’s Kevin Henderson appear later in this piece).

TERMPOL is short for Technical Review Process of Marine Terminal Systems and Transshipment Sites and refers to the route a specific vessel takes in Canadian waters through to its berth at a marine terminal or transshipment site. It also covers the process of cargo handling between vessels, or off-loading from ship to shore.

In other words, individual agreements are made between Transport Canada and the terminals, and the regulations vary site to site.

Stafford Reid discusses this kind of inconsistency and lack of transparency in his July 2008 report: “Major Marine Casualty Risk and Response Preparedness in British Columbia”, prepared for Living Oceans Society. (To download PDF report, click here)

He notes that even when regulations are in place, such as through Haro Strait, the current standards are more than 19 years old and haven’t been tested.

“The lack of transparency on whether these standards are being met or remain relevant leaves one wondering about tug escort efficacy,” he says.

“It doesn’t serve industry nor coastal communities well to let complacency slip in. British Columbians should expect world-wide “best achievable” practices to be used both in vessel casualty prevention and response measures.”

Reid suggests Transport Canada (Marine Safety) needs to reassess the Canadian Escort Tug Standard for Haro Strait and Boundary Pass and be prepared to write a new standard that is founded on worldwide “best practices” for tug escort of laden oil tankers. They should also be consistent with escort requirements for oil tankers transiting the State of Washington’s waters and requirements under the U.S. Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

“The rules should be fully transparent to other agencies and the public regarding the frequency of tug escort, what tugs are used (with specifications), escort positioning/emergency protocols, crew training (nature and frequency), exercises and field tests, near misses and other information,” he adds.

Methanex responds

So what does Methanex have to say about the lack of tug escorts and Stafford Reid’s concerns about the way marine accidents are handled in B.C.?

Kevin Henderson, Methanex’s vice president of manufacturing North America, says that the company has never had a release or shipping incident in the 26 years that tankers have called at the Kitimat terminal.

Methanex used to export methanol produced in Kitimat but now imports methanol as well as condensate, always in double-hulled tankers. This year, 10 tankers have arrived in Kitimat carrying condensate and another one is expected before the end of 2008.

Asked if they should have tug escorts, Henderson says that question is more appropriately addressed to Transport Canada or the Canadian Coast Guard. However, he adds: “I think you have to look at our record. We have been shipping since 1982 and all I can say is that the captains are extremely comfortable coming down Douglas Channel. It’s a wide channel.”

He also notes that each vessel typically carries two pilots on board. The journey sometimes takes longer than eight hours, and Pacific Pilotage Authority regulations kick in, requiring the pilot to hand off to a second pilot.

In the event of a spill, Henderson says the company has an agreement with Burrard Clean that they will act as first responders and a spill response plan that is practiced every year, and includes spill response on water.

“They store a huge amount of equipment in Kitimat and every ship that comes in has to have an agreement in place with Burrard Clean,” he says.

In the event of a condensate spill, he says the product was non-persistent, so the plan would be to control the spill and keep it in open water away from land until it evaporated.

Methanex’s first TERMPOL was approved in 1982, and a revised plan was submitted to account for condensate tankers. According to Henderson, the revised plan was accepted by Transport Canada in summer 2007.

Given Methanex’s good marine safety record, why does it matter if their vessels don’t have tug escorts and whether the marine response in Kitimat is adequate?

The answer, of course, is that accidents can happen at any time, and because B.C.’s marine response regime is patchy at best. And because Enbridge is raising the stakes by looking at bringing in supertankers into Kitimat.

Related and updated posts (updated March 17, 2023):
* What if a tanker heading for Kitimat hit another vessel?
* What if a containership ran aground on Nootka Island?
* Methanex announces plans to close Kitimat plant (September 2, 2005)
* Northern Gateway pipeline approval overturned (June 30, 2016)
* HaiSea Marine orders LNG and electric tugs for Kitimat (March 29, 2021)
* LNG Canada unveils images of future tugs for Kitimat export facility (March 29, 2021)
* Powerful green tug fleet for LNG Canada takes shape at Sanmar (