Two Coasts, Two Solitudes

Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2018

Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant and former public servant of 27 years, prior to that he was a diplomat for 10 years. 

For anyone who thinks that Canada’s regional “diversity” rests mainly on the historic difference between the language, culture and elites of French and English in the central part of the country, the disparities in conditions and beliefs about oil transportation on the east and west coasts offers a new perspective.


Consider the facts about the tankers that transfer crude oil to and from Canada.


Oil tankers have been used to transport large quantities of oil across the oceans for over 100 years. Today, roughly 60% of all oil transported around the world travels by tanker.


An oil tanker’s capacity is measured by its size in deadweight tonnes (DWT). The capacities range from a few thousand DWT to Ultra-Large Crude Carriers (ULCCs) of up 550,000 DWT.


Ports in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec receive tankers up to ULCC size on a regular basis. Almost all tankers operating off the British Columbia coast are Aframax size, with a maximum of 120,000 DWT. Thus, the tankers serving east coast ports are often four times larger that those serving west coast ports.


Transport Canada estimates that there are about 20,000 oil tanker movements off the coasts of Canada each year. Of these, approximately 17,000 (85%) are on the Atlantic coast.


Oil transported as cargo in Canadian waters annually totals 192 million tonnes (MT) to the Atlantic coast, 67 MT to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 24 MT to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway and 6MT to the Pacific coast. So, only 2% of the oil shipped as cargo in Canadian waters goes to the Pacific coast.


Tankers currently represent about 2% of total ship traffic visiting the Port of Vancouver (out of 250 total vessels per month, about 5 are tankers).


The largest oil spill off Canada’s coast was in 1970. The M/V Arrow spilled over 10,000 tonnes off the coast of Nova Scotia, before the era when tankers were required to be double-hulled. The west coast’s largest spill was 240 tonnes caused by the sinking of the M/V The Queen of the North in 2006; that was a fuel oil spill. The largest west coast spill was thus 2.4% of the largest east coast spill. Over the last decade, marine oil spills in Canada have been so small that they are measured not in tonnes or in barrels, but in litres.


Yet, virtually all of the public controversy and demands for reduced tanker traffic is on the west coast. Does this have to do with reality or politics?


  1. Graydon Tranquilla

    Excellent informative article……..greatly appreciated……..

    Being armed with facts is good except when dealing with indoctrinated luddites whose actions are defined by misguided emotions.

  2. Warren Blair

    Truly, the environmental and political rhetoric defies common sense and fundamental logic. Where is the mainstream reporting of balanced and objective facts.

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