Photo: The best laid plans of cruise ship captains and pipeline builders

Captain Schettino, the captain of the Costa Concordia, wasn't the first person to run a ship aground. And he won't be the last either.

By Panos Grames, Communications Specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation

"I think the assurance we can provide is that we will use the most up-to-date of technologies and the best practices anywhere in the world to minimize the likelihood of any kind of an incident." — Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel

The cruise ship Costa Concordia used "the most up-to-date of technologies and the best practices anywhere in the world." These "best practices" probably didn't include the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, deciding to wave hello to a friend on shore. We humans are an unpredictable bunch.

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Mother Nature might be even more unpredictable. The engineers who built the Fukushima nuclear reactors didn't anticipate that an earthquake and tsunami would undermine the backup cooling systems, or that radioactive debris would be washing ashore here in Canada and the U.S. a year later.

Closer to home, an unpredictable chain of events led to the Queen of the North running aground at Gill Island (which just happens to be along one of the proposed tanker routes into Kitimat Harbour), killing two people and leaving 200,000 litres of fuel on the sunken boat — an underwater disaster waiting to happen. Even though B.C. Ferries had the most up-to date technologies and best practices, unexpected human behaviour caused that crash, undermining their best laid plans.

If "best practices" means building a pipeline that pumps thick bitumen across 800 fish-bearing rivers and streams, and sending several tankers a week down narrow fiords with extreme weather and six-metre tides, then we need to rethink what "best practices" means. Are wearing a helmet and shoulder pads while car surfing, or putting on your seatbelt while street racing, "best practices"?

Building the dual Northern Gateway Pipeline and sending tankers through Douglas Channel is like Capt. Schettino wanting to get close enough to wave hello to his friends on shore. He placed his 4,200 passengers at major risk just to confer a minor benefit to himself. It ended in catastrophe, with people struggling to get off the ship while the captain organized his own safe passage onto a life raft. At least 11 people died, and more are still missing. What sort of risk does Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel personally face when his pipeline springs a leak or a tanker runs aground? Not even as much as Capt. Schettino did, and certainly nothing compared to residents along the pipeline route or along the coast.

Building a pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest and sending supertankers full of bitumen around place names like Terror Point, Calamity Bay and Grief Point is the kind of human behaviour that we will likely look back at and wonder, "What the hell were they thinking?"

Just 40 years ago, Japanese citizens protested building the Fukushima nuclear plants in a high seismic area. They saw the risks in ways engineers didn't. That's because they would continue to live next to the plant, bearing the unbearable consequences. Again, the most up-to-date technologies and best practices were employed.

We're simply not equipped to deal with a nuclear meltdown or a bitumen spill in our oceans and streams. Something will happen, in ways not predicted today.

Thankfully, thousands of Canadians are speaking out against the pipeline and tanker traffic. It will be a test of our regulators and our democracy to see if Canada pays more attention to the interests of the passengers, or the captain.

Today's weather report for Douglas Channel, the waterway that leads to Kitimat, includes both gale and freezing spray warnings.

Search Google maps for Douglas Channel to see the route tankers will take.

January 23, 2012

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Jan 23, 2012
6:15 PM

there are obvious risks associated with this scheme,i'm not so sure you really understand what the pipeline is for.the tar sand producers need to thin the bitumen in order to get it to a viscosity that it will flow down a pipeline.they will not be shipping bitumen down the Douglas channel.the line is more about importing condensate which will be used as the thinner and basically the transport mechanism for the heavy oil.the condensate is and has been coming in and pumped through a pipeline that was built through the Telkwa pass in the mid 70s.a bitumen spill would be very easy to contain and control when compared to a condensate spill.just saying.roy

Jan 24, 2012
11:27 AM

Thanks for your interest Roy. You have included several factually inaccurate points here that you may want to review.

– Several supertakers will ship bitumen down Douglas Channel every week.

– A bitumen spill will be extremely difficult to “clean”. It is 40 times thicker than the crude oil that was spilled from the Exxon Valdez, even after it is diluted with condensate. Look at the results of the diluted bitumen spills that have taken place over the past year, most famously in Michigan, but also in Chicago, Alberta, and more recently in North Dakota.

– Diluted bitumen is considered toxic, abrasive, corrosive and flammable.

There are two pipelines being built. One to transport the condensate to the tar sands, and one to ship the tar sands diluted with that condensate back to the coast. A spill of either substance will have major environmental impacts.

I highly recommend that you research the difficulties that Enbridge is experiencing with sending diluted bitumen through their pipelines to the US due to the high pressures needed to move this highly viscous (thick) substance. It is wreaking havoc on their pipelines and pumping stations.

Thanks for taking part in the conversation,

Panos Grames

Jan 23, 2012
9:35 PM

Great read Panos. Was having a very similar conversation with friends the other day. There was also that Captain that liked to knock a few back while cruising Prince William Sound a few years back… Trust you are well. Geordie

Jan 24, 2012
10:05 AM

If there is one thing for certain it's that there is no such thing as infallible technology. Just ask those affected by the 2010 gulf oil leak which should have been prevented by a technology device. That's why proponents of technology based safety systems can only resort to words like "minimize the likelihood of an incident".

Jan 25, 2012
4:40 AM

What would we do if the tar sands did not exist? Apparently they didn't exist until oil hit around $100 a barrel. So is it profit or need? My guess is mostly greed. Just because we CAN do something or we HAVE something does not necessitate an action. We need to act as though we were responsible for our children rather than our children having to take responsibility for our actions. Else our legacy will be a buffoonery of immediate desire.

Jan 25, 2012
2:27 PM

Panos,could you please clarify what you mean when you say this will be a test of our democracy.

Jan 31, 2012
10:24 AM

Hello Irh, This requires a longer discussion, but in short, democracy should see decision makers follow the will of the people. The test will be whether elected officials follow the will of the people as expressed during the public hearings and in other venues. Panos

Feb 10, 2012
9:37 AM

When a person needs to make an important decision that will determine the rest of his life — he weighs the risks and the benefits. Some people would put making alot of money as the most important benefit, ignoring what could go wrong. This decision to build these pipelines and to have huge tankers carry crude oil and bitumen through the west coast of B.C. is probably the most important decision in our lifetime as regards our future of our home. What we have here in B.C. is priceless, the diversity of all the living creatures big

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