Kinder Morgan officials are denying that heavy oil sands bitumen – already carried by tanker through Vancouver harbour – would sink if it ever spilled in the ocean.
Grilled by Metro Vancouver politicians Thursday, company reps called it misinformation in the media that diluted bitumen sinks in water, making a marine spill cleanup virtually impossible.
"The diluted bitumen and other products don't sink," said Mike Davis, Kinder Morgan Canada's director of marine development and engineering. "They're less dense that sea water. They float."
He added any heavy crude oil could eventually sink if it "weathers" on the surface for too long, but added there's no indication that would happen if a bitumen spill was boomed and cleaned within a reasonable period of time.
Mayors at the Metro port cities committee said later they were surprised to hear the claim – and skeptical.
So was B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake when asked for comment.
"The prevailing view is that bitumen will sink rather than float," Lake said, but added more information might be needed.
The province's newly released technical report on heavy oil pipelines specifically lists bitumen's different properties – and its potential to sink and complicate cleanup – as a source of higher risk.
Davis said the first trial shipments of bitumen from Alberta's oil sands via the Trans Mountain pipeline through the Lower Mainland began in the 1980s.
He estimated between 20 and 30 per cent of the 300,000 barrels per day now flowing down the pipeline is either diluted bitumen or similar types of heavy crude oil.
If federal regulators approve the company's plan to twin the 60-year-old pipeline and increase the capacity to 750,000 barrels, an estimated 300 tankers a year would go through Vancouver, up from about 70 now.
Kinder Morgan reps outlined tanker safety measures that include double hulls, segmented holds, two local pilots in command, the use of tethered tugs and a system to vet and inspect tankers for safety.
On land, Davis said staff fly the length of the pipeline in the Lower Mainland once a week and drive its length every two days in search of problems – in addition to the use of a leak detection system monitored out of Edmonton.
He also said the company wants feedback from Metro cities on what sort of legacy benefits they envision, a statement mayors saw as a prelude to cash offers to encourage their support.
North Vancouver City Mayor Darrell Mussatto challenged Kinder Morgan to agree to an independent audit of spill response times on both land and water – something Davis wouldn't immediately commit to but said may be considered through the coming National Energy Board hearings.
Several mayors said they have little comfort in the emergency response capability after the incident in Burnaby in 2007, when oil gushed out of the pipeline after an excavator struck it.
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan noted the spill response agency – Western Canada Marine Response Corp. – has just 22 full-time staff and eight part-time workers and would rely heavily on other vessels and fishermen in event of a spill.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said she's worried there could be finger pointing between Kinder Morgan and shippers as to who is responsible for a spill at or near the Burnaby terminal.
Davis said booms are set up around tankers when they load, meaning any spill at the terminal would be contained. He called the 2007 spill's circumstances unique.
"They have to have a much, much more robust plan to deal with the potential eventualities," Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said later.
"I continue to be very concerned about emergency response plans and protocols within Burrard Inlet," said Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew.
"I am still to be convinced that what is there is adequate for what's being transported today let alone future scaled-up shipments."
Metro has not yet taken any position on the twinning project, although Vancouver, Burnaby and some other city councils have already opposed it.