Northern Gateway witnesses expressed confidence this week that modern weather forecasting will keep oil tankers out of trouble in the areas around the Douglas Channel.
Responding to questions from the provincial government at National Energy Board (NEB) hearings in Prince Rupert, company representatives said there are enough safeguards in place to allow for safe shipping.
"The capabilities of weather and particularly wind and wave predictions has increased considerably in the last 20 years with the establishment of better observational systems," witness David Fissel said after provincial government lawyer Christopher Jones asked about winter weather conditions in Caamano Sound. "We have a really world-class weather monitoring program through the use of the weather buoys that Environment Canada operates throughout the open water area, as well as in the confined channels at Kitimat."
Fissel is a member of Northern Gateway's shipping and navigation panel and is among the final group of company witnesses set to appear before the Joint Review Panel during the questioning phase of the hearings. Northern Gateway is seeking permission to build a pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to Kitimat and then ship the raw diluted bitumen via large tankers to Asian markets.
The province, which began its questioning of the witnesses on Tuesday afternoon, wrapped up its cross-examination on Thursday morning. Jones spent some time talking about the two primary routes Northern Gateway is encouraging tankers to use as they enter and exit the Kitimat port.
Opponents of the project have pointed to the historically volatile weather in the Douglas Channel area. In his question, Jones referred to a document in evidence which pointed to the navigational challenges that come from the high seas and swells during winter storms in the Caamano Sound.
"Does that suggest that it would make sense for Northern Gateway to abandon use of that southern approach through Caamano Sound entirely or at least through the winter months?" Jones asked.
Witness Al Flotre said the conditions Jones described were intermittent and that most of the time the route is safe. When conditions dictate it should be avoided, Flotre said other options exist.
"If the vessel arrived at the entrance to Caamano Sound and conditions werent favourable . . . to make a safe passage then you could carry on north and use the other route," he said.
Fissel said Environment Canada's marine forecasts are generally very accurate looking out two or three days but are less precise for longer term predictions.
Under Canadian law all the tankers will be guided by a licensed B.C. coast pilot when entering and exiting the confined channel around the terminal. The pilots will have complete authority over the ships navigation and it will be up to them to determine the safest route.
Although Northern Gateway is encouraging the tankers to traverse one of two routes to and from the terminal, other options exist at the pilot's discretion.
Events like poor weather or an abundance of fishing boats may make one of the primary routes impassable, but witnesses said repeatedly they expect deviations from the prescribed trajectory to be rare.
"I think the key here though is that there are alternatives and I dont think you want to take those alternatives away from the pilot to use at their discretion when its appropriate and in an exceptional circumstance," witness Michael Cowdell said.
In addition to the pilots, tug boats will also be deployed to guide the ships through the channel.
The shipping and navigation witnesses will face seven other intervener groups before concluding their testimony. After that, Northern Gateway will question witnesses from intervener groups. Four federal government witness panels will also take the stand in Prince Rupert.