TransCanada Submits Updated Energy East Application, Confirming Risk of Massive Oil Tanker Traffic Increase Along U.S. East Coast

A little over a month ago, I wrote a brief update on the status of TransCanada's latest scheme to pipe and ship tar sands oil from Alberta to the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts. At that time, TransCanada had officially dropped its plans for a Quebec-based export terminal, but the company was still being cagey about its next move for the US$15.7 billion pipeline proposal. Now, TransCanada has filed its much-anticipated amended application with the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB), confirming rumors that it would rely on a single mega-port in Saint John, New Brunswick that is expected to load 281 oil supertankers with tar sands oil. In doing so, the proposed Energy East tar sands pipeline would put a vast stretch of the East Coast at risk from an oil tanker accident, including such iconic places as the Gulf of Maine, Cape Cod, New York Harbor, Chesapeake Bay, and the Florida Keys. Today's amended application confirms that TransCanada learned little from the Keystone XL battle and is continuing to push projects that pose major threats to climate, water, marine wildlife, communities, local economies, and public safety.

The proposed Energy East tar sands pipeline would carry 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil from Alberta to New Brunswick, with most of this capacity reserved for Alberta's tar sands producers. The US$15.7 billion project would move tar sands oil 2,850 miles, relying on aging natural gas pipeline for 1,860 miles, and brand new pipeline for 930 miles across Quebec and New Brunswick. Upon reaching the port city of Saint John, oil would be stored in tanks rising as high as six stories with a total capacity of 13.2 million barrels. This extraordinary volume of oil would then be loaded onto more than 280 oil tankers every year--ranging in size from the 700,000 barrel Aframax, to the 2 million barrel Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC)--with destinations at refineries primarily n New Jersey, Delaware, Louisiana, and Texas. This reliance on a virtual pipeline along our Atlantic coast, would also lead to a major increase in crude oil tanker traffic, with estimates placing the increase at more than 500% over current numbers in most areas.[1] Over the course of a year, as much as 328 million barrels of tar sands oil could be moved to U.S. refineries by oil tanker.[2]

Comparing oil tankers to other well-known objects/animals. Courtesy Crude Oil Daily

With this huge increase in tanker traffic come a myriad of concerns. At a number of points along their East Coast route, these new tar sands tankers will travel through incredibly busy waters, increasing the risk of vessel collisions that could lead to spills. At the same time, they will move through waters that host the critical habitats of countless iconic marine species, including numerous species of whale, dolphins and porpoises, and economically important commercial fisheries. The threat to these species is perhaps most pressing in the Bay of Fundy, Gulf of Maine, and Florida Strait, where tar sands tankers would navigate along the borders of designated critical habitat for endangered species like the North Atlantic Right Whale, Minke Whale, and Blue Whale. And tankers don't just bring spill risks with them when they begin using certain paths--they also increase noise pollution that can cause serious harm to marine mammals, introduce ballast water laden with invasive species, and increase the chances of a fatal ship strike with large mammals like whales. In the event of a spill, regionally iconic industries like lobstering could suffer major losses, if not complete destruction, in the event of a spill due to the possibility of sinking oil that would be impossible to clean up on the open ocean.

North Atlantic Right Whale and calf. Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

The cleanup challenges posed by Energy East's hundreds of oil tankers are especially troubling. In early December, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published its findings following a year-long review of diluted bitumen (the most common form of tar sands oil, also known as "dilbit") spills into water. Not only did the NAS find that dilbit is prone to quickly sinking following a spill, they also found that first responders at the local, state, and national level, as well as the oil industry itself, are completely unprepared to handle a major tar sands spill into water.

But Energy East wouldn't just be a potential disaster for our oceans; it's a climate disaster as well. With capacity 35% higher than the formerly-proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Energy East would allow for a massive expansion in tar sands production in Alberta by providing the industry with a relatively low-cost and substantial increase in export capacity. This production alone could cause up to 32 million metric tons of CO2E emissions per year. Producing, transporting, and burning this tar sands oil would cause CO2E emission on the order to 220 million metric tons per year[3] (equivalent to the annual emissions of 58 coal-fired power plants). As the world contemplates how to limit climate change-driven warming to targets below 2° Celsius, there is no longer a place for projects like Energy East to be built.

Because of its cost, environmental impacts, and the opposition it already faces in Canada, Energy East is a project that will never be built. Our marine ecosystems cannot handle the risk, our first responders lack the resources they would need to respond to an accident, and our shared climate cannot accommodate another long-lived carbon-intensive project of this scale. But to ensure Energy East never becomes a reality, it is time for Americans to pay attention. This oil would be destined for our shores, and we need to let Canada know that we are unwilling to accept the risks Energy East would pose to our coastlines, communities, and climate.


[1] Very little crude oil is moved by oil tanker north up the U.S. east coast, especially north of New Jersey. Estimates from the EIA suggest that, with rising Texas production, as many as 50 loaded oil tankers per year make the journey to either Saint John or the Montreal area, with additional tankers traveling from the east (i.e., Europe and Africa) into Saint John to feed the refinery there. This results in a 75% increase in petroleum tanker traffic in Saint John, and a much more dramatic increase in tanker traffic further south. See: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43653.pdf; http://www.wsj.com/articles/exports-to-canada-kept-u-s-gulf-coast-storage-hubs-below-capacity-1431977743; http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/fuel-prices/4597#exports; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/energy-and-resources/eastern-refineries-processing-more-foreign-oil-as-crude-price-gap-narrows/article22727311/.

[2] TransCanada has proposed using 70 Aframax, 175 Suezmax, and 36 VLCCs per year. Total capacity of this many oil tankers carrying tar sands exceeds 900,000 bpd, or 328 million barrels per year. See: https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/2432218/2540913/2543426/2887424/A74779-20_Vol_2_Sec_04_Construction_Operations_-_A4W7J0.pdf?nodeid=2887737&vernum=1; http://maritime-connector.com/wiki/ship-sizes/

[3] This is extrapolated from the numbers arrived at by the U.S. State Department during its review of the Keystone XL pipeline. For that pipeline, which would have moved 830,000 bpd of similar oil types, annual lifecycle emissions were estimated anywhere between 147-168 million metric tons of CO2E per year.

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Policy Analyst, Canada Project, International program

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