Cost-cutting trumps safety at Woodfibre LNG

The aging "LNG Taurus" off of South Africa in 2013 ( Photo: Anton Bergstrom )
The aging “LNG Taurus” off of South Africa in 2013 (Photo: Anton Bergstrom)

Written by Eoin Finn

In a recent post in the Squamish Chief and other media, Woodfibre LNG’s VP Byng Giraud said he must “cut costs to make the business profitable”. The company website states that safety will come about through “Use of appropriate materials and compliance with industry and safety best practices” andProper engineering design of all onshore and floating facilities”.

Many wondered what the tradeoffs would be between safety and cost. Now comes word from the influential shipping magazine TradeWinds last month that Woodfibre plans “to use two elderly LNG carriers as floating storage units (FSUs)…Two LNG carriers, the 126,300 m3 LNG Capricorn (built 1978) and LNG Taurus (built 1979), which were purchased by Singapore-based Nova Shipping & Logistics last year, have been widely rumoured to be earmarked for conversion into FSUs for the Woodfibre project. Both ships are currently laid up in Southeast Asia”.

Past “best before” date

LNG Capricorn (Photo: Frasquito/FleetMon)
LNG Capricorn (Photo: Frasquito/FleetMon)

You may well ask: What can possibly go wrong with using two “elderly” 285m.-long, bolted-together vessels holding 120,000 tonnes of flammable fracked gas in the waters of Northern Howe Sound?  The answer is … plenty! Consider that:

These ships are old! At almost 40 years old, they are among the oldest 5% of  the world’s 420+ LNG carriers and 3.5 times older than the fleet’s average age. Putting that in human terms, these ships are nearing 150 years old. If installed for the 25-year life of the plant, by 2045 they would be by far the oldest active LNG vessels ever; 

An LNG plant near populated areas is no place for aging rust-buckets, acquired for eight cents on the dollar, that are well beyond their 20-year design lifetime. This lifetime takes into account the stress, metal fatigue and tank damage these ships endure from pounding waves  (100 million of them over 20 years of voyages), sloshing cargoes, electrolytic thinning of the hull’s steel and rusting of key pumps and valves essential to keeping the vessel operating safely;

If a spill were to happen – an accident or a terrorist attack on these “sitting ducks” – these tankers have no secondary containment. Like Chernobyl’s reactors and Lac Megantic’s rail-cars.

LNG novice takes unprecedented chances

Woodfibre’s configuration would be a first.  There’s not a single instance worldwide of an LNG liquefaction plant using floating LNG storage. Woodfibre and its parent have never built or operated an LNG facility anywhere.  Ever.

Japan, the world’s leading importer of LNG, knows a thing or two about disasters, and insists on putting LNG storage tanks on land, buried up to their domes, so a spill can’t go anywhere untoward. Woodfibre’s on-the-water storage scheme violates that hard-learned safety precaution and Canada’s CSA safety standard of having tanks spaced at least a tank diameter apart;

SIGTTO (the LNG industry’s association) recommends that LNG facilities have tugs available 24/7 to help LNG tankers maneuver quickly away from the loading jetty should the need arise (due to spills, fires, forest fires, winds over 25 knots).  As these two bolted-together tankers will have no engines or crew aboard, accomplishing this simple safety step will be difficult, if not impossible. What tug (or hypothetical fire-boat) would be brave enough to approach and try to tow away a pair of burning, engineless LNG tankers?  Where would they take them – to Squamish, Britannia, Anvil Island…where??

Both vessels have been in accidents

Transferring LNG from these FSUs to the transiting LNG tanker will have the three tankers lined up broadside to one another at the jetty (yes – the same place where, in 1955, the entire jetty suddenly slumped into the depths of Howe Sound, taking an onsite warehouse with it). This will require the delicate act of transferring the -1620C LNG, via an inflexible metal bellows, between ships moving vertically and laterally relative to each other in the waves. In the often-windy conditions of Howe Sound. All while balancing the amount of LNG taken from each storage tanker so as not to stress the bolts strapping them together. Ship-to-ship LNG transfer was not invented when these tankers were built and has only recently been tested, in one trial, under perfect conditions;

Both of these vessels have been in accidents.  The LNG Taurus suffered severe hull damage in a grounding off Japan in 1980, while the LNG Capricorn had a fire in its #5 insulated tank and hard-whacked a pier while docking. In the Taurus incident, the Captain so feared the catastrophic rupture of the ship’s LNG tanks that he took his own life on the spot. His ghost is rumoured to haunt the Taurus!

Putting a price on safety

Given this apparent sacrifice of public safety on the altar of cost reduction, it is cold comfort to contemplate the words of Woodfibre LNG’s Vice-President Byng Giraud – then (2013) VP of Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley Mine – who said “There needs to be a public realization that the costs imposed on industry to remove extreme risks—reducing a risk from one in 1,000 to one in 10,000—comes with a price.”

Indeed it does. Just ask the victims of disasters in Likely, BC, Lac-Mégantic, Fort McMurray, Halifax, Westray and Grassy Narrows.

Eoin Finn is a retired KPMG partner and a seasonal resident of Bowyer Island in Howe Sound. He holds an MBA in International Business and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry.


15 thoughts on “Cost-cutting trumps safety at Woodfibre LNG

  1. The federal government has approved KinderMorgan, but the BC Liberals were defeated in a confidence vote tonight, June 29th and Premier John Horgan has accepted the LG’s invitation to form a new GreeNDP Government !
    WoodFibre LNG should be quaking in their illegal boots, ’cause they won’t survive a real EA, done by real scientists working for the people’s government.

  2. My concerns as a former firefighter are that of the fire and explosion risk of these storage ships. Essentially, once fire breaks out it’s improbable if not impossible to extingish. All that can be done is to try to keep the containment vessel cool by applying as much water as possible while the fuel burns itself out. As these ships have multiple containers, they all need extra cooling. The sheer size of the ships and the accessability in case of fire pose terrific strategic problems, and extreme danger for fire fighters. The spherical storage vessels are cryogenically cooled by on board systems which must continue to function in case of fire…this may become a fail situation that would lead to compounding catastrophic conditions. The tragic nuclear disaster at Fukushima a few years back resulted from failed cooling pumps that led to the core melt down.
    Also, consider the volume of fuel potential… Since LNG is a compressed liquid, it’s not flammable until it returns to it’s gaseous form and mixes with enough air to support combustion. LNG is compressed from a gas at a ratio of 600 to 1… this means that each ship represents 600 ship’s worth of flammable fuel vapour, a fearsome image and more than enough to do unimaginable destruction to Howe Sound and environs in a worst case scenario. The comparison to a nuclear explosion is not far fetched.
    That such potential risk is even entertained in an area with surrounding populations is negligence in the extreme. All that for cost cutting profitability to benefit financiers and politicians who bear no real risk is purely disgusting.

  3. I am a summer resident of Bowyer Island and DO NOT WANT LNG tankers of any age in my Howe Sound front yard!!! It has taken 15 years to clean up the Sound after Woodfibre….I prefer the Dolphins, pods of orca and humpbacks who now feed in the North Sound and pass by our front deck several times each summer!!

  4. Has the Woodfiber site been cleaned up yet?
    I’d like to know all of the inside story of the land deal!!
    I know that Anaconda left a huge environmental mess behind across the Sound in Britannia Beach that took 12 years of hell to get somewhat cleaned up. There is more to the story at Woodfiber…..
    Prince Rupert and Kitimat will get LNG before they build the Woodfiber LNG plant…. And there is no money in LNG export. Must have something to do with the cleanup!!!

  5. Cut to the chase..Woodfibre..Sukanto Tanoto’s project is too cheap to have brand new storage containers built….

    These ancient vessels were not designed to transfer LNG from ship to ship….

    Think about NEW LNG terminal is using NEW LNG Carrier ships for storage

    NO other New LNG Terminals are purchasing, and or using 50 year old retired carries for storage

    …it is definitely not common practice to bring retired LNG carries into (FSRU) Floating Storage and regasification units..

    Bottom line…a mickey mouse proposal being run by an international criminal..

    Can you say…


  6. How do you compare a spill at Sea to Lac-Mégantic, Fort McMurray, Halifax and a couple others??? Have these tankers never had maintenance? This is hack propaganda… plain and simple.

    1. The comparison to L-M is quite direct, with the risk of a catastrophic explosion. Lots of well-researched material on that note in these pages:

      Halifax was a marine explosion in a densely populated centre, in part prompted by recklessness – so that’s a pretty clear comparison.

      Westray was also an explosion at an industrial project with poor safety standards, resulting in catastrophic loss of life – so, again, no big leap there.

      Grassy Narrows was industrial mercury pollution, severely affecting the health of local First Nations residents for half a century, so that one’s a bit different, but the thing all these disasters have in common is dangerous industrial activity close to human populations.

  7. You would expect this coming from a country with little regulation, little legislation and massive corruption. What do the regulators and government agencies have to say about this twisted proposal? Was this considered during the regulatory process, environmental assessment?

    Who is insuring this bad idea? Since it will not be carrying the LNG has this skirted Lloyds Registry Rules and Regulations and therefore avoided the extensive inspection and certification process?

    Expect a bright shiny paint job to cover a substantial list of deficiencies. The province and the feds should be clamping down hard on this proposal or done deal and requiring a whole new consultation process. Many questions need to be asked and saving money to make this folly “profitable” should not be even entertained in this new process.

    “The word “Squamish” means “Mother of the Wind,” and with the strong winds that still blow at the north end of Howe Sound, it’s not hard to understand how the original Coast Salish inhabitants came up with the name for this territory.” BC Gov’t Explore BC (Super Natural BC)

    There is a list of global terms for winds and “squamish” made that list, “strong violent wind”. I have experienced this wind in all its fury when the Woodfibre pulp mill was still in operation. It shifted the slip (floating dock) and docking dolphin away some 150 meters from its position that was attached to large anchor chains to tonnes of concrete ballast at the bottom of the ocean bed. This occurred in February during freezing conditions. The ferry from Darrell Bay was covered in ice, the pulp mill pipes were freezing up and ocean going tugs had to brought in to remove non-essential workers.

    Only Mark Twain could sum up this folly: ““Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm. Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the “noblest work of God.”

    1. Every critical component of these ships must be thoroughly inspected and I mean thoroughly, not one leaf unturned, by a team of qualified and certified senior inspectors. Every plate of steel on its hull requires extensive measurement for thickness, every weld requires radiographic and other methodologies, every pipe weld joint, every weld on the containment spheres, all paint removed from these welds. A ‘needle in a haystack’ is all that is needed to make this idea a disaster.

  8. The question is why are they needed as new ships would also represent substantial risk? For instance, new airliners are problem prone, why not ships? Also, there looks like a pretty big storage facility behind them. I think the answer is because of low demand and very low commodity prices.
    This style of storage is wide spread now in petro industry as production has not slowed down to meet low demand. Its a false and obviously risky economy. But real jobs are at stake so i gather communities would be quietly okay with the potential catastrophe in light of short term gain of keeping people employed if even at a loss.
    Hopefully the producers will finally get a grip but i dont think the end is in sight anytime soon.

  9. I am wondering if this was part of the project proposal that was assessed by both levels of government and the local FN.

    It seems odd that such a work around on costs would be approved, given the obvious concerns stated here by Mr Finn.

    1. My question also. Was it even considered during the regulatory and approval process? If not what regulatory slight of hand has allowed this to happen, this cruel hoax of a plan? As I can make out the cost cutting comes from not having to submit to extensive earthquake prevention engineering and construction that would have to take place if storage was on land.

      I would be concerned about an earthquake triggered terrestrial massive rock slide causing a tsunami. The most obvious would be at Porteau Cove where large slabs of rock precariously slope at a more than 45 degree angle to the sound. Some of these slabs have been bolted to reduce the hazard but I am not sure if these bolts would withstand an earthquake triggered landslide. The history of building the railway through this section should be noted. I would also be concerned about underwater landslides that cause more tsunamis than earthquakes, they are classified as megatsunamis.

    2. Kevin,
      Floating storage has been the plan from the beginning. However the age of these ships, and their history of past accidents, is more recent news. How can all of this happen? The BC Environmental Assessment was a sham on many fronts. I read a bunch of it and was amazed. And the Feds accepted the BC EA – felt they had to (legally) and were not interested in legal opinion to the contrary. The only thing the Feds analyzed (minimally) re WF is greenhouse gasses.

  10. I had hopes a new Prime Minister might in some small way bring sanity to Christy’s dreamy eyed LNG pronouncements….might actually enforce Paris Climate Summit policy. I’m afraid he was elected for saying what some people wanted to hear…not unlike our very own Ms. Christy. In the end they both are ruled by corporations.


    1. Junior Trudeau and his cabinet have yet to rule on the Kinder Morgan proposal and will he go crawling back kowtowing to the Gods of Bay Street or listen to the concerns of the majority who live on this coast? His government was given a healthy number of seats in parliament from BC, would the loss of these seats make a difference in the next election? Isn’t this what politicians govern for, the next election?

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