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About Michael Riordan

Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island, where he lives and kayaks. He holds a PhD degree in physics from MIT, having worked on the experiments that led to the discovery of quarks. He has taught courses about the history of physics and technology at Stanford University and UC Santa Cruz. He is author of "The Hunting of the Quark" as well as coauthor of "The Solar Home Book", "Crystal Fire", "The Shadows of Creation", and — most recently —"Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider" (Chicago, 2015). Riordan has published articles and essays in "The New York Times", "Washington Post", "San Francisco Chronicle", "Seattle Times", "Harvard Business Review" and "Technology Review". A Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow of the American Physical Society, he was awarded the 2002 Andrew Gemant Award by the American Institute of Physics in recognition of his efforts communicating physics and its wider cultural implications.

By Michael Riordan

Canada’s Pipe Dream Threatens the Salish Sea

Based in part on an article originally published in Seattle Times Opinions on March 10, 2019.

Coauthored with Janet Alderton, whose brief bio appears below.

Despite overwhelming opposition from British Columbia, Washington state, and tribes, counties and cities on both sides of the border, plus strong evidence that the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project will inevitably harm the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population, the Canadian National Energy Board has recommended that the project should proceed. This is a deeply flawed decision.

Of paramount concern to Washington citizens are the adverse impacts on the struggling orcas, whose population in the wild is now down to 75 members — close to the lowest level in decades. If this project is completed as planned, an additional 590,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil could be shipped daily from the Westridge Terminal in Burnaby, BC; that would result in a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic to more than 800 transits per year through the orcas’ critical habitat in Haro Strait, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and adjacent Salish Sea waters.

The additional underwater noise from hundreds more tankers annually will be difficult if not impossible to mitigate. This inevitably greater racket will further obscure their favorite Chinook salmon prey, which the orcas track and find using echolocation. And the tugboats necessarily accompanying these huge, lumbering tankers for safety reasons would ironically generate even more underwater noise.

Spill off Tsawwassen would coat Whatcom County waters and beaches.
A major spill off Roberts Point would coat Whatcom County waters and shores, according to a computer simulation.

If a major oil spill were to occur in the Salish Sea from one of these tankers, the impact on the orcas would be devastating, likely wiping out the entire species. The purported “clean up” of conventional floating oils is a widespread industry myth, as their recovery level is 20 percent at best. After the volatile components evaporate, the remaining heavier oils can remain in the marine environment for decades — as shown by the residues that still linger in Alaska’s Prince William Sound 30 years after the Exxon Valdez spill.

But not only could such a large spill in Haro Strait coat nearby shores and tidelands with sticky, smelly ooze. If the tanker carried diluted bitumen from tar-sands deposits in Alberta, a sizable portion of it could also separate and sink to the sea floor under conditions of high winds and waves — smothering benthic species there, including the Pacific sand lance that are a principal prey of Chinook salmon.

So why does the Canadian government want to push forward with this ill-considered project in the face of overwhelming opposition and damning evidence? It’s because the Trans Mountain pipeline is the only option it has left to get added Alberta tar-sands crude oil to tidewaters, where it could be shipped overseas and supposedly earn higher profits. After two other such pipelines had been cancelled, the federal government bought the existing Trans Mountain pipeline [2] for CA$4.5 billion (US$3.7 billion) to keep the third option alive. And it will cost Canada at least another CA$7.4 billion to nearly triple its capacity.

But the likely government decision to expand this pipeline is based on deeply flawed economic analysis. The demand for high-sulfur tar-sands crude is projected to drop when the International Maritime Organization’s global pollution standards become more stringent less than a year from now. All large commercial vessels must significantly reduce their sulfur-dioxide emissions by January 1. Most will do that by switching to low-sulfur fuels rather than the high-sulfur bunker fuels that have been commonly used on ocean-going vessels. And because Alberta tar-sands crudes have among the highest sulfur contents in the world, which makes refining them costly, the market for them is likely to plummet.

Moreover, Canada’s fervent hope that Asian markets for its heavy crudes will materialize is a pipe dream. According to a recent Greenpeace analysis, 92 percent of the current shipments from Burnaby go to US refineries, mostly in California and Washington, able to handle heavy, sulfur-laden crudes. That number is unlikely to change much should the expansion go through.

The Aframax-size tankers that can load crude oil in Burnaby and pass under Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge are too small to compete in international markets with the gigantic supertankers now plying the oceans. And Asian refineries have been reluctant to invest the billions required for the additional infrastructure needed to refine high-sulfur crude oil economically when lower-sulfur crudes are available.

The 92 percent of shipments to US refineries do not include the more than 150,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil that currently enter our state daily via the Puget Sound Pipeline System, a spur of the Trans Mountain Pipeline that supplies Whatcom and Skagit County refineries. These refineries will have to face the same diminishing markets for high-sulfur fuels — and resolve what can be done with all the sulfurous byproducts that will soon begin piling up.

In all likelihood, the added Trans Mountain pipeline capacity would be for nought. And Canadian citizens will be left holding the bag, wondering how they ever got snookered into wasting billions on such an economic dinosaur.

Janet Alderton is president of the Friends of the San Juans, a nonprofit organization working to protect the San Juan Islands for people and nature, including oil spill prevention throughout the Salish Sea. She is serving her second term on Washington state’s Citizen’s Committee for Pipeline Safety, a group convened by Governor Chris Gregoire after two boys were killed in the 1999 Bellingham pipeline explosion.

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About Michael Riordan

Posting Citizen Journalist • Eastsound, WA • Member since Nov 25, 2016

Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island, where he lives and kayaks. He holds a PhD degree in physics from MIT, having worked on the [...]