Nearly 200,000 Call for Action on Tar Sands Tanker Threat

Credit: Orca breaching in the Salish Sea. Andrew Reding

In the final weeks of President Obama’s time in office, members and activists from eight environmental organizations located around the country are calling on the federal government to take decisive action to stop the looming threat of tar sands tankers on U.S. waterways. NRDC, Credo Action, Center for Biological Diversity, Oil Change International, Stand, 350 Maine, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Clean Water Action Maryland gathered 195,865 signatures calling on the federal government to act to protect their communities and waters. In the submissions to President Obama, the EPA, and the U.S. Coast Guard, petitioners urged strong and immediate action to confront the possibility of a massive uptick in the number of tar sands tankers navigating U.S. waterways in the coming years. In a recent report NRDC estimated that these proposed tar sands projects – including the Kinder Morgan and Energy East tar sands pipelines and new rail terminals – would lead to more than 1,000 additional tankers and barges moving tar sands across U.S. waters each year, a massive increase from current traffic of at most 80 vessels.   While the window for likely federal action may be closing, states across the U.S. have the opportunity to respond to this public outcry and ensure their waters are protected.


The need for a strong response to this tar sands tanker threat is more pressing than ever. At the end of 2016, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, announced a series of federal approvals of massive new tar sands oil projects, one of which puts the U.S. west coast at serious risk of a devastating tar sands oil spill. Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline would triple the amount of tar sands oil moved from Alberta to Vancouver, British Columbia. Once in Vancouver, all of this oil will need to be loaded onto oil tankers and barges because local refineries in British Columbia and Washington are already saturated with tar sands. To get around this impediment, producers will rely on loading nearly 350 massive oil tankers every year to move the tar sands crude south to California refineries in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.

Elsewhere, projects like TransCanada’s Energy East tar sands pipeline proposal and the two rail-to-barge facilities proposed for Vancouver, Washington and Albany, New York, all pose serious threats to major American Rivers and our coastlines. If Energy East were built, more than 280 super tankers would be filled with tar sands crude for shipment to East and Gulf Coast refineries. In addition, the two proposed rail-to-barge facilities would load nearly 250 barges and small tankers with tar sands crude. And this doesn’t even include existing rail-to-barge infrastructure built up along the Mississippi River back when crude oil peaked in value back in 2014, which NRDC estimates can load at least 130 barges with tar sands crude each year.


The problems with these projects are many, but at the highest level there are three big ones. First, they would put almost the entire U.S. coastline and three of its largest rivers—the Hudson, Mississippi, and Columbia—at risk of a tar sands oil spill. This would be particularly devastating for these areas, as tar sands oil has been found in both studies and in real world accidents to be nearly impossible to clean up. Second, sensitive marine and riverine species, including the Pacific Northwest’s beloved Killer Whales, the Northeast’s North Atlantic right whales, Maine’s lobster, and the West’s salmon, would all be under threat from both the increase in commercial vessel traffic and the heightened risk of an uncleanable oil spill. If such an event were to occur, the economic consequences could be staggering for the billion dollar tourism and fishing economies all of these areas rely on. Third, they would allow for significant expansion of Alberta’s tar sands industry, locking in decades of high-carbon production of one of the world’s dirtiest and most environmentally destructive oils. Estimates of the annual lifecycle emissions of the oil carried by these projects are staggering: 362 million metric tons of CO2, or the annual emissions of 105 coal-fired power plants. Second,

Approximate routes of tar sands shipments to and on U.S. waterways

As the Obama Administration ends and the Trump Administration takes over, hope for federal action to protect American resources from the tar sands tanker threat may be waning. However, this doesn’t mean the fight will end. States, empowered by the Oil Pollution Act, have the authority to protect their waters and their resources from the potential environmental harms posed by tankers loaded with tar sands crude. The delivery of these petitions is a rallying cry for exactly this type of action—a demonstration that this is an issue that worries coastal residents and Americans in general, an issue that demands a swift and meaningful response before our coastal and riverine resources are put needlessly at risk.