Close to 17 million passengers passed through Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in 2010.
That meant plenty of planes—about 293,000 took off and landed from the runways on Sea Island.
While they transported people to and from a multitude of different places around the globe, the one thing those aircraft had in common was a need for fuel.
Plenty of it.
Estimates put the demand at 1.3 to 1.4 billion litres annually pumped into aircraft leaving the airport which is an economic powerhouse.
According to statistics from the Vancouver International Airport Authority, 23,600 people are employed on Sea Island, and the airport contributed $1.9 billion to the national economy.
With growth in air traffic expected at YVR, the thirst for aviation fuel is anticipated to rise.
And a plan raising concerns from environmentalists to keep that supply flowing, handle any increases in fuel demands, and keep the airport’s economic effects soaring is a proposed new fuel pipeline stretching across Richmond to Sea Island from a marine terminal and tank farm on the banks of the South Arm of the Fraser River in southeast Richmond.
The proposal is being put forward by the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation (VAFFC), that according to its website (vancouverairportfuel.ca.) is a not-for-profit company owned by a consortium of commercial airlines representing many of the domestic and international carriers serving YVR.
On the books for a decade
“This project has been on the books for a long time, over 10 years,” said Adrian Pollard, project director for VAFFC. “It started with options to increase fuel supply to the airport. This need really extends from growth in the airport and the region, and, actually, declining (aviation fuel) supplies.”
A video outlining the project is available at vancouverairportfuel.ca.
Currently, much of the fuel needed at YVR is delivered along a 40 km long, six-inch, fuel pipeline running from the Chevron Refinery near Burrard Inlet in North Burnaby to Sea Island. It was built more than 40 years ago when there were four refineries feeding the pipeline.
“We now only have one of those refineries still producing, so the rest needs to be imported,” Pollard said. “And the importing of fuel, most of it comes from south of the border, but we’re looking long-term in the future, we’re going to need to access other supplies offshore due to the constraints of the refining capacity in the Pacific Northwest.”
Diversifying supply and increasing supply points will serve growth and security of supply, as well, Pollard added.
Forty per cent of the airport’s aviation fuel needs are produced at the Burnaby refinery and transferred through the aging pipeline. Pollard said that capacity will not be increased due to environmental concerns and cost.
“There’s no plans we’re aware of that they will increase production at that facility, so any growth at the airport needs to be found somewhere else,” Pollard said.
The remaining 60 per cent of YVR’s aviation fuel needs are met by the Cherry Point refinery in Birch Bay, Washington. Built in 1971 it currently processes 225,000 barrels of oil a day.
It also provides roughly 85 per cent of the fuel used by the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Much of the fuel for YVR from Cherry Point arrives via barge to the Burrard Inlet refinery. With that pipeline running at capacity, the rest of the needed fuel, about 20 per cent, is delivered to YVR by tanker trucks.
“The only option to get more fuel to the airport for future growth is just adding trucks to the road which is not sustainable,” Pollard said, adding there are environmental concerns of trucking fuel that distance, not only in terms of potential spills, but the emissions from the tanker trucks.
“Pipelines, ships and barges are much more efficient,” Pollard said.
That’s why the VAFFC is proposing installing a 12-inch diameter, 15 km long pipeline from YVR to a marine terminal and fuel receiving facility along the South Arm of the Fraser River, almost directly across from the Deas Island Park, Tilbury Island area in South Delta.
Fuel would be brought in by barges on a weekly basis, or monthly using Panamax class tankers that run up to 950 feet in length.
The estimated $80 to $100 million project is in the midst of a review by the Environmental Assessment Office and about midway through a 120-day holding period, requested by VAFFC so it can examine alternate routes for the pipeline across Richmond, possibly one that follows Highway 99.
Meeting long-term needs
Pollard said the proposed pipeline and tank farm would be constructed to meet long-term needs—60 to 100 years.
“It would more than meet the projected growth over that time frame,” he said. “We can’t get projections from YVR or Transport Canada that go out further than 25 years, so we do our own extrapolation. We build this facility, we have no plans to change it in 25 years.”
While the South Arm plan is the one being put forward, other options were examined.
“We did an evaluation over a period of years looking at many different options and a number were short-listed for further investigation in 2006,” Pollard said.
What narrowed the options down to the South Arm proposal included cost and difficulty replacing the 40 km of existing pipeline through highly developed urban areas of Burnaby, Vancouver and Richmond.
And an off-shore option to build a marine terminal off Sturgeon Banks had seismic stability concerns and potential environmental effects on the Fraser River estuary.
“We also looked at putting a buoy mooring that ships and barges could tie up to and run a pipeline from buoy to shore,” said Ron Byres, Senior Project Manager with engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol whose role on the project is performing the marine terminal engineering, navigation assessments, and other studies.
With seismic stability a concern offshore, the South Arm location was preferred.
“Much of the land along the banks of the Fraser River is also susceptible to liquefaction or slumping during a landslide, but relatively speaking it’s older land, it’s been there longer and had time to consolidate. So, it’s more stable and easier to treat,” Byres said, alluding to preparing the land for a structure such as the proposed marine terminal and adjacent fuel tank farm.
“This isn’t the cheapest option we’re pursuing here,” Pollard said. “It’s the best option. The economics were just one measure.”
What has environmentalists concerned on both sides of the river in Richmond and South Delta is the possibility of a fuel spill.
Pipeline project officials say they are well prepared.
“The first thing to keep in mind is that vessels of this size are already transiting the river,” Byres said. “Container vessels of similar size go up to the Fraser Surrey Docks and auto carriers go to Fraser Wharves and the Annacis Terminal are roughly the same size. There are fuel shipments on the river as well in terms of bunker fuel being delivered in barges to vessels for refuelling purposes.”
And when it comes to navigating the river, all safeguards will be put in place.
“Every vessel that would be visiting this project would be boarded by Faser River pilots who have extensive knowledge of operating large vessels on the river,” Byres said. “They board the vessels off of Sandheads and basically take command of the vessel coming up the river.”
That provides the best measure of safety when it comes to navigating the river, Byres added.
“We’ve had numerous meetings with the pilots and they’re all comfortable with the idea of bringing vessels of this size to this location on the river,” Byres said.
Simulation studies have been conducted to assess navigation safety. And the large tankers are also built to ensure safety with double hulls.
“It’s extremely unlikely that an accident would occur. Obviously, there are risks with any activity in life and a possibility of something going wrong—a vessel going aground or losing power,” Byres said.
The double hull construction puts that to a minimum.
“The amount of energy in terms of a collision to breach the inner hull of a tanker like that is very substantial,” Byres said.
Plus the nature of the Fraser River’s sandy bottom and its well-defined waterway combines to make for safe operation with risks of a major collision and spills low.
“But having said that, there are contingency and operational plans in place to deal with spills if they happen,” Byres said.
Both the operators of the marine terminal and fuel vessels are required to have contracts in place with the Western Canada Marine Response Organization to clean up any spills.
“In the event of a spill they are mobilized to bring in their equipment, resources and expertise to deal with it,” Byres said.
Next week in Part 2, the Leader examines the environmental concerns and possible options to the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation’s proposed marine terminal and fuel pipeline to YVR.