Shipping Could Replace Pipeline in Canada

North Channel Bridge, Cornwall, Canada

Published Feb 21, 2016 1:04 AM by Harry Valentine

The Western Canadian province of Alberta is blessed with abundant oil reserves, while an oil refinery located in the Eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick seeks delivery of that oil, via pipeline. However, several mayors of towns and cities located in the province of Quebec oppose the pipeline carrying oil through their towns. 

The town of Magog, Quebec, was the site of a tragic derailment involving a train carrying crude oil from Western to Eastern Canada. Perhaps by an extraordinary coincidence, the oil pipeline passes in very close proximity to two former bulk docks on the St Lawrence River.

Both docks are located in the south-eastern region of the province of Ontario and very close to Quebec. One port was owned and operated by Universal Terminals and located directly south of Ottawa, near the town of Morrisburg, while the other dock is located at the Port of Cornwall that still operates as a bulk terminal with underground tanks of calcium chloride. 

At both Morrisburg and Cornwall, a short stretch (six kilometers, 3.7 miles) of buried pipeline could connect the main proposed east-west oil pipeline to either maritime terminal, with oil storage tanks located near the main pipeline instead of at the dock.

Both docks are cleared for the largest size of vessel that can sail along the St Lawrence Seaway. However, using Morrisburg as the transfer port would require vessels to transit American navigation locks. Using Cornwall as the transfer port, would see oil tankers passing only through Canadian navigation locks between Cornwall and Montreal. 

During 2012, a suggestion circulated in the maritime sector that lengthening the navigation locks, while maintaining identical width and depth along the Seaway, could encourage operation of coupled maritime trains and greatly enhance the efficiency and cost-competitiveness of maritime transportation. 

The prospect of sailing oil tankers along a section of the Seaway could re-ignite that discussion. At the present time, ships of identical length and draft as Seaway-max ships but built to a beam of 105-feet instead of 76-feet sail on the ocean, inviting discussion of widening and lengthening the navigation locks while leaving the navigation depth unchanged. 

A Canadian-flagged super tug could push and navigate the combination of a two-unit tow of coupled flagless tanker barges of 650-foot length by 105-foot beam between Montreal and an oil terminal located along the New Brunswick coast with a pipeline connection.

Lengthening the navigation locks would enhance the efficiency of transporting other forms of bulk cargo as well as containers between a future Port of Sydney transshipment terminal and container ports located along the inland waterway. 

While there is great opposition from environmentalists to dredging the inland waterway to transit deeper draft vessels, environmentalists would likely be more accepting of coupled maritime trains sailing along the inland waterway, possibly even at a beam of 105 feet instead of 76 feet. 

Political opposition to an oil pipeline through Quebec opens discussion on modifying the St Lawrence Seaway to transit larger vessels, including oil tankers.

While the annual winter closure of the St Lawrence Seaway may appear to be problematic, the waterway initially remained navigable throughout the year after its opening. Compressed air was used to break up ice at navigation locks while reinforced ship bows could slice through the ice along the navigation channel. At the present day during winter, massive volumes of compressed air can be stored in subterranean caverns to keep locks operational. Stored geothermal heat plus retractable covers over the locks could contribute to maintaining winter navigation, while reinforced attachments secured to barge bows could slice through the ice.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.