Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bridge Over Troubled Water

There seems to be a lot of hysteria over the two proposed pipeline options for carrying oil from the tar sands of Alberta to tankers in either Vancouver in the south or Kitimat in the north, that strikes me as NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) at its worst or hypocrisy at its best. With car choked freeways and new bridges being built to accommodate suburban sprawl, and no attempt being made to reduce automobile use, it's quite obvious how dependent we are on the automobile economy in spite of our feigned objection to the main ingredient they run on.  And electric cars and trucks won't make any difference either because when you charge them up at night the power grid will still have to run on something, whether it's hydroelectric, nuclear, or some flavour of fossil fuel (coal, gas, or oil). 

One way of reducing automobile use might be licensing fees. Compare automobile licensing and registration fees in Copenhagen & Singapore where you pay a minimum of 100% of the car's value as an annual registration tax and, in the case of Singapore, you must also bid for a certificate of entitlement on an open auction as part of the country's strictly regulated vehicle quota system.  Shanghai has a similar system with a monthly quota on new license plates being sold at auction with the average price being over $10,000.00 and Hong Kong charges an average of $1,500 per year for licensing fees.

Singapore traffic

Of course no politician in this country would risk any change to the status quo so, reduced automobile use is not something likely to occur in the near term smoggy horizon but, we can continue to smugly point our fingers at people elsewhere who also need oil.  If the main objection is an oil leak occurring in the Salish Sea (Georgia Strait) or somewhere off the coast of Haida Gwaii, then perhaps all we need to do is look at the problem a little differently and put the pipeline terminus somewhere else.

Given the treacherous nature of Hecate Strait outside of Prince Rupert and the tricky navigation of Douglas Channel that also leads to Hecate Strait from Kitimat, it's easy to see why folks are worried about oil supertankers in these waters.  Vancouver, however, is a different story with the only oil spill  we've had being caused by a backhoe doing some routine municipal work and inadvertently puncturing a pipeline in the process.  There has never been an oil tanker spill (in spite of one leaving every 3 days) because every oil tanker leaving Vancouver has 3 tug boats attached to it until it safely reaches open water.  Nonetheless Vancouverites aren't going to allow themselves to be the perceived sacrificial lamb in order to save the fragile North so basically we have a stand-off in spite of the federal government's determination to push through the pipeline.

Oil tanker passing under 2nd Narrows Bridge
Oil tanker loading up in Burnaby photo by Junie Quiroga

If the oil pipeline terminus was located in Victoria or Port Alberni, both well established deep water ports more than capable of handling oil tankers, the problem would immediately shift to the west coast of Vancouver Island which has only open sea between it and mainland China, or anywhere else in the Far East for that matter.  While it's true that an oil tanker spill in the Port Alberni Inlet would be devastating for the pristine Broken Island group, it's also true the inlet, or canal as it is often referred to, is very straight, easily navigable and quite safe to transit.  Combined with some tugboat support and the already mandatory marine pilot service, it's unlikely there would ever be a problem.  The same could be said for ships leaving Victoria once they had cleared Juan de Fuca Strait.

The problem now becomes one of getting the pipeline built to either Victoria or Port Alberni and here is where a little imagination might be useful.  While the distance from Vancouver to either city is less than 60 miles in a straight line, nearly half of it would need to be underwater, and an underwater pipeline would probably not be an option given the potential risk of rupture and the difficulty in servicing something operating in depths ranging from 500 - 1,500 feet.  But a pipeline attached to the underside of a bridge is a completely different option. and one that could potentially kill two birds with one stone.
Proposed bridge crossing routes

Getting a bridge built from Vancouver to Vancouver Island has been a dream of many British Columbians ever since the province came into existence.  While the necessary engineering is complex, unproven, and costly, it isn't impossible and the timing couldn't be better for getting it built at Alberta's expense.  A bridge that would finally connect Vancouver Island to the mainland while at the same time facilitating the transport of oil to a safer port is indeed a bridge over troubled waters and something we might wish to now seriously  consider.

Proposed floating bridge design


  1. With regard to your proposed floating bridge design, Nelson.

    May I suggest a variation which I've suggested to build a bridge between Scotland and Ireland?

    Consider instead using conventional piers in shallow water close to the shore, to allow shipping to pass under the bridge.

    In deeper water, the conventional bridge could transition to a floating bridge supported by submerged pontoons which are tied down to gravity anchors, as per your diagram (above) but without the "cabled-stayed bridge pier".

    Deep Sea Channel Crossing - diagram by Peter Dow

    Wikipedia - British Isles fixed sea link connections

    The two crossings
    * Vancouver <=> Vancouver Island
    * Scotland <=> Ireland
    seem to be of a similar order of magnitude of engineering difficulty so perhaps we can compare notes or collaborate?

    You can email me at peterdow@talk21.com

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