06-Geopolitics

Long Way Around

By February 14, 2019 No Comments
Long Way Around

This is a story about energy security. It’s about what happens when the amenities a nation depends on are abruptly threatened — or cut off altogether.

If you lived through the 1970s like I did, you probably know what I’m referring to: sudden gasoline shortages and panic at the pumps framed against the never-ending geopolitics of the Middle East. In short, a fast-breaking situation when our taken-for-granted energy supplies became scarce and uncertain.

Yes, 45 years after the Arab Oil Embargo, I’m reminiscing about energy shortages.

My musings are prompted while standing on the north shore of the Burrard Inlet in beautiful Vancouver, Canada. Across the inlet are the loading docks at the end of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, where the oil tanker Aristoklis awaits.

It’s summer 2018. I’ve come here because it’s the day the Canadian government nationalized the 65-year-old pipeline. And although prickly environmental issues primarily drove the decision to bring the pipeline into public ownership, a more interesting story echoes through this steel tube — about how society prioritizes security in the energy choices it makes.


A more interesting story echoes through this steel tube.

SAME COUNTRY, OTHER SIDE

As its name implies, the Trans Mountain Pipeline brings oil to this tidewater by crossing two Canadian mountain ranges: the Rockies and the Cascades. It’s a thousand-kilometer westward journey from Alberta’s prolific oil fields to British Columbia’s coast, where I’m standing.

As I ponder the massive vessel across from me, my imagination wanders back to November 1973 and what must have been a similar scene …

The Kimon, a Greek tanker, was moored at the same spot I’m looking at now. The well-traveled ship’s captain — I’ll call him Nick — had docked uneventfully. Special loading arms that looked like giant, kinked drinking straws were filling the Kimon from storage tanks on shore. The reservoirs were presumably well stocked, having been topped up with crude oil flowing in from the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Captain Nick was on the bridge planning his ship’s 14,000-kilometer route — a distance greater than a third of the way around Earth. Fidgeting with his curly white mustache, he looked up at Alex, his first mate, and delivered his assessment. “We’ll be at sea for three weeks.”

“It’s a long way, sir,” Alex observed, “but we’re close to land for most of it … should be a calm journey.”

Looking over the maps, Alex followed Nick’s carefully ruled navigation lines. They would route through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, out to the eastern edges of the Pacific Ocean, sailing south to the Panama Canal, then back up through the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast.

“Helluva long way,” Nick muttered, “for what could have been a direct overland haul.”

Alex pulled a devilish grin. “At least it keeps us working, Captain.”

“Yeah,” Nick agreed as he leaned over his maps, tracing a finger along their final destination: the St. Lawrence Seaway.

“That’s where we end up” — the captain tapped his finger firmly on the spot — “Montreal. Right back in Canada, only, on the other side.”

The 30,000-ton MS Kimon was the first of several tankers to transport Canadian oil during the Arab Oil Embargo. In one month alone, they moved 1.5 million barrels.
Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives; CVA 447-5455, photographer Walter E. Frost

IN THE GRIP OF A CRISIS

As a Greek national, Nick may not have fully appreciated the importance of his journey, but I can tell you that the Kimon’s voyage was urgent. Eastern Canada needed fuel from western Canada’s oilfields as soon as possible.

A month prior, Arab countries had united to express their anger at the Western world. Unhappy with supporters of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Libya turned the valves down on Canada, the United States, several European countries and Japan. The restrictions were tight enough to cause energy havoc, and anxiety was radiating around the world. Oil flows were being choked off and Western fuel supplies were running short.

Hostage to the geopolitics, and their dependency on their angry oil suppliers, the sanctioned countries had to fend for themselves. The price of oil soared. National hoarding of petroleum products took hold. Each country had to secure its own alternative sources of the fuel that was needed for turning wheels on every axle of the economy.

International relations were cold. So was the weather. In the Northern Hemisphere — where most of the target countries were located — winter was setting in and fuel for heating homes, generating electricity and gassing up the family Buick was getting tight. The shortages of oil were forcing countries to take extreme action.

That’s why the Kimon’s journey was so absurd, yet so urgent. Although the distance between Vancouver and Montreal is only about 3,600 kilometers as the crow flies, Canada lacked the means to transport the oil directly via land. The sole west-to-east oil pipeline at the time was the Interprovincial Pipe Line system, but it went only about halfway, to Sarnia, Ontario. And its capacity was limited.

So the Kimon was set to embark on a trip four times longer than it needed to be — to deliver a couple hundred thousand barrels of oil back to the country it came from.

My mind returned to the bridge of the Kimon.


International relations were cold. So was the weather.

In the absence of a direct pipeline, this 14,000-kilometer, three-week-long journey helped mitigate the effects of the oil crisis in eastern Canada.

PRECIOUS CARGO

“This oil’s worth a lot of money now,” mused Alex. “I heard the price jumped to over four dollars a barrel yesterday. That means …” He did some quick math and made an impressed whistle. “It’s worth almost a million dollars.”

The Kimon’s crew appreciated the value of their ship’s cargo, but as international sailors on a Greek-registered vessel, they were indifferent to Canadian energy issues. Their job was to get the cargo from point A to point B.

Nick nodded, but his mind was elsewhere. “How is it,” he said, scratching the back of his neck, “that a country so rich in oil is not self-sufficient in this stuff from coast to coast?”

“Don’t know.” Alex shrugged, peering through binoculars at the deck hands working below.

Nick shook his head. “I’m sure our fellow countryman Aristotle would have had something to say about the matter. When he coined enérgeia, he used it in the sense of being at work.” He added wryly, “Canada’s great energy supplies are hardly working for it now.”

Philosophy aside, Nick was just happy that Canada’s unfortunate situation was contributing to his livelihood.

In truth, Canada once tried to become self-sufficient in oil from west to east. But the politics were contentious, so a Royal Commission on Energy was dispatched to study the matter. In 1959, its report rejected building an Edmonton-to-Montreal pipeline. The reason? In large part because overseas oil — much of it from sanctioning producers like Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq — was deemed plentiful. Buying from foreign sources was cheaper than laying a metal pipe across a few thousand kilometers of prairie, forests and granitic rocks. Basically, cheap oil from other countries trumped the hassle and incremental cost of securing domestic oil.

An hour passed on the Kimon’s bridge. Just as Nick was finishing his paperwork, Costas, the communications officer, delivered a note. “Telegram, sir.” He knew the news wasn’t good.

Reading the message, Nick twisted his mustache in irritation. “This is crazy! I was assured these government types were going to set aside their trade protection rules in time of national crisis!”

The message was simple:

DELIVERY TO MONTREAL NOT POSSIBLE. STOP. RE-ROUTE TO PORTLAND, MAINE, USA. STOP.

The telegram went on to advise the Kimon that it would not be able to unload its cargo in any other Canadian port. Cabotage rules — prohibiting foreign-owned ships from hauling cargo between two domestic ports — would not be waived, not even in the midst of geopolitical crisis.

Instead of a direct sea voyage, Alberta’s oil would have to be unloaded in the nearest American port and flow to Montreal via an American pipeline.

“Alex,” Nick said firmly, “give me the east coast maps of the United States. Change of plans. We’re heading to Maine.”


Cheap oil from other countries trumped the hassle and incremental cost of securing domestic oil.

Related Vignettes

AT WHAT COST?

Records show the Kimon and its 200,000 barrels of oil arrived in Maine just before Christmas 1973. But there was no time to celebrate. Due to the escalating sanctions, the tanker had to return to Vancouver as soon as it finished unloading. More Alberta oil awaited.

In December alone, the Kimon and seven other tankers — all foreign-owned — transported 1.5 million barrels of oil from Vancouver, through the Panama Canal, to the northeastern United States, where a pipeline awaited. Their circuitous journeys helped mitigate Canada’s energy crisis, though with anxiety and at tremendous cost.

I take photos of the dock, turn around and walk back to my car, as perplexed as Captain Nick. Forty-five years after his voyage, Canada would still be in the same insecure situation should another energy crisis hit.

TOO LITTLE, TILL IT’S TOO LATE

The events leading up to the 2018 Act of Parliament that nationalized the Trans Mountain Pipeline were contentious, but the reasons can be distilled down to intense public debates about environment and safety versus economy and prosperity. Energy security was a forgotten memory.

Pipeline debates in Canada are nothing new, nor are the reasons behind them. Political polarizers from past decades include the TransCanada Mainline (1954), the previously mentioned Edmonton-Montreal Pipeline (1957), the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline (1974), Northern Gateway (2005), Energy East (2013), Keystone XL (2016) and the proposed expansion of the same Trans Mountain Pipeline (2018) from which Nick loaded his ship.

In many ways, Canada is a laboratory that has conducted economic experiments on trade-offs in its energy supplies. Yet what I’ve gleaned from my reviews is that none of those experiments has articulated energy security as a primary objective. Consequently, this country’s energy needs are no less vulnerable to geopolitical forces than they were decades ago. That’s not an indictment, it’s an observation about priorities.

There’s a recurrent theme in the stories I tell: people want their energy to be cheap, clean, safe and secure. In developed countries, that want has become an entitlement. Of course, we’d all like free, completely safe and secure energy that has zero environmental impact! Yet we don’t live in a utopia, so compromises must be made based on social circumstance. Reflecting on Canada’s pipeline debates, I sense that, since World War II, the urgency of energy security in the Western world has gradually lost rank relative to the cheap/clean/safe trifecta.

Captain Nick’s story is important because energy security is a difficult dimension to value in the present. As long as electricity is always ready at the flick of a switch and the service station always has a nozzle to fill their car, it’s not something consumers think about. Skimping on energy security is like neglecting house insurance — we don’t think much about it until somebody robs our home … then it’s too late.

As I get in my car, I take for granted that the engine will start and I’ll get to my destination without having to worry about where my next tank will come from. So too will the billion-plus people who drive oil-dependent cars in this world.

But this isn’t just a story about oil. Electric vehicle drivers aren’t concerned about where the charge in their batteries comes from either. Nor will you worry whether the light will turn on the next time you flick the switch. That’s the way it should be — if we plan our energy systems appropriately.


Energy security is a difficult dimension to value in the present.

EPILOGUE

Back at home, I research the Kimon in greater detail.

In September 1978, the Kimon had again been hired to mitigate an energy security deficiency. This time, the tanker found herself in trouble in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Lebanon, where war had broken out. Beirut was cut off from oil supplies and needed the vital commodity, similar to Montreal five years earlier. Only, this mission was dangerous: it had to skirt warships and smuggle oil into the needy country. Not surprisingly, the tanker was seized and her crew arrested.

Released soon after, the crew and its ship enjoyed only short-lived freedom. Ensnared in continuing Middle Eastern conflict, the Kimon was sunk by rockets before the calendar turned to 1979.

In times of peace, we tend to discount the value of energy and take our sources of supply for granted. But during conflict, energy is often the first point of political leverage, and in extreme cases of military intervention, we pay the price with scarcity, hardship and potentially even loss of life.

Societies that learn to prioritize energy security when it’s not an issue will never have to think about it when it becomes an issue.