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Newly formed organization tackles LNG Shipping safety


Q&A with an independent shipping research leader


Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping is a newly formed independent, not-for-profit Vancouver-based marine research organization.

The Squamish Chief sat down with the organization’s executive director, Richard Wiefelspuett, for a chat about the shipping industry and the safety of shipping liquefied natural gas. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: Can you explain what oversees ships on our coast?

A: There are international and Canadian regulations. As a ship approaches the coast it will be governed more and more by Canadian safety organizations. These include vessel traffic services by the coast guard, the port state authority exerted by Transport Canada and then as they come very close the pilots go on board.

Our marine pilots are part of the safety system and they make sure that the ships go through our waters without losing track and hitting a rock.

Q: In Squamish we have been waiting for Woodfibre LNG’s voluntary Technical Review Process of Marine Systems and Transhipment (TERMPOL) review. Can you explain what it is ?

A: TERMPOL will bring together industry and safety experts and here on our coast, pilots and local operators are involved. They work together to analyze the approach of the ship to the terminal. Does the ship have enough navigational aids to find its way safely? Is there a need for escort tugs or tethered tugs to make sure that if the ship loses control it can be manoeuvred safely? What about other ships, ferry crossings and other shipping interests? Aspects of the approach, coming and going, will be investigated. There’s a risk assessment and ultimately assimilations can be part of this and people test and train the approaches.

Q: What else can you tell me about shipping liquefied natural gas?

A: It is a self-regulating industry that has a very safe record. The deep safety culture is very important.

We have commissioned a report on enhanced LNG tanker safety measures that are taken by industry leaders around the world. That report is just about concluded and will be ready in about a month. It will answer a number of questions about LNG tanker safety. We will make it publicly available – folks in Squamish can read it too.

Q: The lack of regulation requiring an exclusion zone around LNG carriers is a concern to many here who oppose the Woodfibre LNG project. Can you speak to that?

A: It is true. We are learning that industrial standards differ from country to country regarding terminals and safety distances. With Boston Harbour, the terminal is right in the centre of the city and when a gas tanker comes everything stops, nothing moves.

There is a very high level of enhanced safety layers there. If you go to Barcelona, Spain, on the other hand, nobody cares. The tanker just comes in.

What is encouraging for us is to hear that the LNG shipping companies vet the terminals.

If they think there is a gap in the safety standards they won’t go there. It is the master of the ship ultimately and he will decide to only dock at the terminals that are compliant with his company’s own safety standards.

I have been told by people in the industry that they really hate it when they hear people talk about LNG as a safe gas because they say it isn’t. We know how to manage it safely, but it requires our full attention to do that. The industry itself knows it is not safe and that is creating the safety culture that is at play in the 50 years of accident-free operations.

Q: The fact that shipping liquefied natural gas is self-regulated is going to be a hard sell for those opposed to LNG.

A: It is true. I think we are lagging behind in our national regulations regarding LNG. We will soon have LNG-fuelled vessels as well – ferries, for example, and again we are not yet there with having national regulations. They are under development as far as I hear, but they aren’t really out there yet.

I do believe regulations of a port state like Canada are one of the first safety layers that should be in place and so if it is not then all we have is a trust in the self-regulation.

We have good reasons to believe in it because of the track record, but I do agree we are not yet covered by national regulations regarding LNG safety.

Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions around shipping that you encounter?

A: There’s a wide bandwidth of difference in what is happening. An oil tanker, for example, leaving Burrard Inlet is super regulated.

We have a fantastic protocol in place that is really constricting the industry. We have the pilots on board, we have the tugs escorting the tanker, we have regulations regarding the transit time – it has to be daylight and good visibility. All these things come together and while the ships go through Second Narrows everybody else has to wait. So that is a very good safety protocol.

Compare that to a normal bulk carrier that comes in at a much higher frequency – they are less regulated and less supervised. Transport safety in coastal regions is actually at a very high standards and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it world class, but the overall ability to supervise ships once they are out of our pilot areas that is another story. Do we have the capacity to help ships when they lose control, when they start drifting?

These things are being addressed in the Canadian government’s recent Ocean Protection Plan.

But it is early days and will require some time to get it done.

About Clear Seas

Based in Vancouver, B.C., Clear Seas is an independent, not-for-profit research centre that provides impartial and fact-based information about marine shipping in Canada, including risks, mitigation measures and best practices for safe and sustainable marine shipping.

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