New website tracks tar sands shipments to West Coast

Activists fighting an oil sands pipeline project on the West Coast have come up with a novel way to grab the public’s attention.

On Tuesday, they launched a website that tracks tanker ships bringing diluted bitumen from the oil sands to refineries in California and Washington state. The site will even alert you when a “tar sands tanker” sails into your area.

The tankers get their cargo from the Trans Mountain pipeline, which connects northern Alberta to a port just outside Vancouver. The pipeline’s owner, Kinder Morgan Canada, wants to nearly triple Trans Mountain’s capacity, making it even larger than the hotly debated Keystone XL pipeline extension. And yet few Americans even realize that Trans Mountain exists.

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ForestEthics, an environmental group with branches in both the United States and Canada, hopes to change that.

The group created the website,, to drive home the point that tankers filled with diluted bitumen — or dilbit — are already plying West Coast waters, about 80 ships per year. And traffic would jump if Trans Mountain expands. Add in another proposed oil-sands pipeline farther north — the Enbridge Northern Gateway — and the number of ships could rise to 600 per year.

“This is a cross-border issue,” said Matt Krogh of ForestEthics. “Are we going to build a wall of opposition to these proposals? At ForestEthics, we say yes.”

Diluted bitumen is a form of heavy crude mixed with lighter hydrocarbons. If spilled in water, it can sink once those lighter elements evaporate. That makes any cleanup difficult.

“Your standard crude spill is bad enough,” Krogh said. “But with tar sands, it’s worse. We really don’t know how to clean it up.”

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A Kinder Morgan spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The new website uses identification numbers transmitted by ships to track them up and down the coast. But the site has glitches. On Tuesday, two Chronicle reporters using different computers were unable to find any tankers tracked on it. ForestEthics, however, provided screenshots showing that the web site was following two ships that day. The source of the error has not yet been identified.

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