Shipping oil through Canadian waters: safe by design

Meet the experts responsible for ensuring safe transportation through Canada’s West Coast waters

Western Canada Marine Response Corporation

Since 1976, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) has been providing spill response on Canada’s West Coast. The organization is certified by Transport Canada as the organization to clean up any potentially harmful spills that occur in our coastal waters, including an oil tanker spill.

wcmrc spill response training exercise
Photo courtesy: WCMRC

Completion of the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) pipeline in late 2022 or early 2023 will mean more oil will be transported from Canada’s West Coast to international markets. Some people have raised concerns about the risks of shipping oil through Canadian waters, but industry and Canada’s world-class marine safety organizations are more than up to the task.

Read more: Trans Mountain safely restarts operation

“The precautions in place are incredible.”

Margareta Dovgal, Director of Research, Resource Works

In fact, the marine shipping safety record on Canada’s West Coast is terrific because it’s designed that way – with layer over layer of safety procedures, protocols, training and more.

Keeping marine oil transport incident-free is designed around several distinct layers of safety.

Read more: What is the WCMRC?

“The precautions in place are incredible,” says Margareta Dovgal, director of research, Resource Works. She’s one of the experts featured in a number of new videos that highlight marine safety on Canada’s West Coast. “The risk management system we have to protect our coastal waters is rigorous and comprehensive.”

Good ships, trained crews – and marine pilots

“Safety requirements and layers of safety protocols for tankers are hugely different from requirements for ferries or other large cargo vessels in our waters,” says Kevin Obermeyer, president and CEO, Pacific Pilotage Association.

Just like keeping your family vehicle running well, a well built, well equipped and well-maintained marine vessel is the first layer of defense against a safety incident. Also, since 2015, only tankers with double hulls (a shell within a shell) are allowed in any Canadian waters – yet another layer of safety against spills.

tugboat and oil tanker k1583052

The next layer: a well-trained crew. But even the best on-board team can be unfamiliar with the hazards presented by unfamiliar waters, anything from tides and currents to other marine traffic. That’s where the next layer of safety comes in: marine pilots.

Within a large area stretching from Washington State in the south to Alaska in the north and extending up to 10 kilometres from shore, all large cargo ships in Canadian waters are required to have one marine pilot on board to help navigate the ship. To increase safety even more, oil tankers are required to have two marine pilots on board while in the zone.

Pilots are professional mariners who have years of coastal experience and are familiar with local waters. Pilots board the vessel and work with the tanker crew to travel safely. B.C.’s pilots are mandated to protect the public, marine personnel, human health, property and the environment. Pilots operate independently of both industry and government, and have developed a safety practice that’s internationally recognized for world-leading performance – consistently 99.9 per cent safe operation of large vessels including oil tankers.

Read more: Tanker Safety

Captain Steve Kennedy says, “We conduct about 12,000 ship moves a year on the B.C. coast. Anticipating an increase in workload because of the Trans Mountain expansion, we started new additional pilots so we could get them through the training process and lead time so they will be certified and prepared to do those jobs when the time comes.”

Three tugboats per tanker

Another level of safety: tugboats. Every loaded oil tanker is required to have three tugboats, more than the requirement for any other type of vessel. These tugboats maintain full control of the tanker at all times, to help manoeuver the ship carefully through coastal waters, working in tandem with the marine pilots on board the tanker. 

“We focus on prevention,” says Stephanie Snider, manager, marine engagement, Trans Mountain. “For example, an enhanced tug escort for every laden tanker on its way out of Canadian waters.

Spill response: ready if needed

The risk of a large oil spill is extremely low, but should a spill occur, a robust spill response program is in place. Trans Mountain, in conjunction with partners including the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, has invested more than $150 million to expand marine spill response capability. This includes eight new emergency response bases along the West Coast (several operated by coastal Indigenous communities) and 44 new vessels, resulting in faster response times than ever before.

What about Spills?

In addition, through the Coastal Response Program, potential sensitivities have been identified – such as areas important to Indigenous communities, fishing areas, or other concerns. With this knowledge, marine pilots can navigate tankers to avoid sensitive coastal areas.

A stellar safety record

Because of the many layers of safety management for marine transport on Canada’s West Coast, there’s never been an incident with a liquid bulk carrier, whether that liquid is oil or some other commodity.

Effective planning, using the latest navigation equipment, community involvement and training, plus many layers of safety procedures have resulted in a stellar safety record: Trans Mountain has been loading and shipping oil from its Westridge Terminal in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet for more than 65 years with zero incidents.