Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gasoline Alley

Once upon a time if you looked into Coal Harbour, so named because of the low grade coal seams (first spotted by Captain Vancouver) that were visible along the banks of what is now Hastings Street, you would see at least 3 floating marine fuel stations tethered to their pilings, bright signage clearly on display, and cheerfully promoting the Chevron, Esso and Shell oil brand names.  While coal may continue to be the principle source of fuel for generating the world's electricity and heat, the world's transportation industry still depends on various petroleum products to power its trains, planes, automobiles and ships.  And with Vancouver being a port city it seemed to make sense that a water based system of refueling would be available to both commercial ships and recreational boaters.

Chevron & Esso fuel barges

Since the 1960's there seemed to have been a vibrant, competitive business going on until Shell dropped out and it was just Esso and Chevron.  Then in the summer of 2008 Esso announced it was getting out of the marine fuel business completely and was shutting down all of its stations along the coast including the floating one in Coal Harbour and another one in False Creek.  In spite of an ever growing number of pleasure boaters, fuel sales continue to drop and they claimed there just wasn't enough profit in the business anymore.  Hard to believe when I happen to own a power boat myself and nearly have a heart attack everytime I have to fill up thanks to my 2 miles per gallon fuel economy, and that's only doing 10 knots.  If I went any faster it would be even worse, but I guess that's exactly the point.  With the price of fuel continuing to rise power boaters are just not out there cruising like they used to, and most of the boats are staying tied up at the dock.

Futuristic design for a solar powered  bulk carrier
Unfortunately boats aren't very fuel efficient inventions, at least at first blush when you think about a freighter getting only 23 feet to the gallon.  But when you factor in how much cargo one of these ships can carry as compared to say an equivalent number of trucks or railcars, then the math gets much more interesting with ships twice as efficient as trains and 10 times more efficient than trucks.  However, a typical bulk carrier still goes through approximately 9,000 gallons of fuel a day so, regardless of how efficient these freighters are, you can understand why designers would want to experiment with things like solar power and other ways of reducing fuel consumption. Unfortunately none of this matters to the floating fuel stations because, while they would like to fill up the tank of a freighter, these ships only burn bunker oil, not gas or diesel, so they're out of luck. Ditto for the cruiseships. 

Futuristic design for a solar powered carrier
Another problem facing floating marine fuel stations of course is the ever changing environmental concerns and safety requirements.  Keeping an operating permit depends on all sorts of inspections and compliancy with various levels of government.  In January 2010 a brand new, state of the art, double hulled fuel barge with special design features to contain any rain water and oil contamination, was towed into Coal Harbour and set up to replace the old one that had been in place since 1959.  With storage capacity for 42,000 gallons of gas and 339,000 gallons of diesel, local pleasure boaters can be assured of a reliable supply of fuel for the forseeable future.

Chevron Fuel Barge photo by Junie Quiroga
But it's not the pleasure boaters this new fuel station is catering to, it's the tug boats.  Even the smallest one has a 50,000 gallon tank and the big one featured at the back of the barge in the picture above has a 225,000 gallon tank.  With the maximum output of the pumps around 13,000 gallons an hour it can take a deckhand an entire 8 hour shift to fuel up and that's only if the tank is half empty.  I guess I shouldn't feel so bad about the fuel I burn in comparison.  Gasoline alley may be down to just one operator now but it still moves more petroleum based fuel than any of the wildest estimates anyone ever expected when they first discovered coal.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read. Perhaps it's time to trade in the power boat for a sail boat??!!