A report by Friends of the Earth has revealed that there is an alarming increase in barge traffic transporting tar sands oil for refining and export between an oil port near Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada, and the US Oil refinery in Tacoma, Washington, US.

The Westridge marine oil terminal in Burnaby, BC, is the terminus of the Trans Mountain pipeline that presently carries 300,000 barrels a day (bbl/day) of diluted bitumen or tar sands oil or dilbit from Alberta, Canada, for export.

This investigation was conducted following the proposal to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline and the sevenfold increase in tanker traffic exporting tar sands oil through the habitat of the endangered community of southern resident killer whales.

In its ‘Tar Sands/Dilbit Crude Oil Movements Within the Salish Sea’ report, Friends of the Earth stated that the inability to recover spills of tar sands oil with current technology, as outlined by the National Academy of Sciences this year, led it to evaluate how much tar sands oil Washington refineries receive by vessel.

"This project would be the final harpoon in the population of endangered southern resident killer whales."

Friends of the Earth north-west consultant and report author Fred Felleman said: "Trans Mountain is the one of the biggest threats to US waters that few people have ever heard of.

"The expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline poses the greatest risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Salish Sea as compared with the numerous other marine terminal proposals in the region. This project would be the final harpoon in the population of endangered southern resident killer whales."

The report details the shipments of tar sands within Washington State waters as well as the export of crude oil from the state.

It particularly focuses on the barge movements of tar sands crude oil between Burnaby and Tacoma within the Salish Sea.

Among the key findings include that Washington state is a major refining centre where five refineries received 2,117 deliveries of crude oil totaling more than 695,000,000 million barrels over the waters of the Salish Sea between 2010 and 2014. Refineries receive an additional 180,000bbl/day of crude oil from the Trans Mountain Pipeline as well as lesser amounts by rail that fluctuates with the price of crude.

The report detailed that between 2010 and 2014, more than 10 million barrels of tar sands oil were barged on 132 occasions within the Salish Sea between the terminus of the Trans Mountain Pipeline in Burnaby and the US Oil refinery in Tacoma.

Each with a capacity of 80,000bbl, the Commencement Bay and Drakes Bay oil barges made day-long trips three times a month during the five-year study period, by being towed by the tug Henry Sause and owned by the Sause Brothers.

Route taken by the Henry Sause was from the Trans Mountain oil terminal south across Georgia Strait and Rosario Strait into Commencement Bay in Puget Sound. Numerous tugs and tows have run into trouble along this route due to the swift currents through Rosario Strait and the lack of maneuverability of tugs with tows led the US Coast Guard to issue a voluntary Marine Safety Advisory last year.

The proposed expansion of Trans Mountain Pipeline would increase its capacity to 890,000bbl/day of tar sands oil and increase the number of tankers exporting crude oil through the Salish Sea from one a week to one a day.

Washington’s refineries exported 9,810,200 barrels of crude oil on 80 occasions between 2010 and 2014. All five of Washington refineries have used their docks as crude oil transshipment terminals, enabling crude oil tankers to leave their docks bypassing the refinery. This demonstrates the oil industry’s ability to export crude oil without dock modifications, the report stated.

The report also recommended the need to set up tug escort requirements for oil barges, as required in California, especially for those transporting dilbit crude oil; stationing of an emergency response towing vessel (ERTV) in the San Juan Islands to prevent and respond to oil spills; updates to Washington state contingency plans to address the challenges of responding to a dilbit crude oil spill.