The pipeline that already carries crude oil from Alberta through the Lower Mainland to waiting oil tankers off Burnaby is a step closer to doubling its capacity.
Kinder Morgan said the $3.8 billion expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline – from a capacity of 300,000 barrels per day now to 600,000 – appears justified after it got strong support from shipping customers in a test of the market.
"What we heard back is very encouraging," spokesperson Lexa Hobenshield said.
Initial project design and planning work is now being finished and Kinder Morgan will decide by the end of March whether to seek approval to twin the line.
Because the Trans Mountain route has an existing right-of-way, Kinder Morgan's project holds a major advantage over rival Enbridge, which has hit fierce opposition in northern B.C. to its bid to construct the Northern Gateway pipeline to carry 550,000 barrels per day of oil sands crude to Kitimat.
A doubled Trans Mountain pipeline would likely see many more oil tankers passing through Burrard Inlet to carry oil to destinations in Asia or the U.S.
Up to 70 tankers a year (32 in 2011) already load up there.
Hobenshield said the project could include the addition of a second berth at the Westridge terminal in Burnaby as well as additional petroleum product storage in Burnaby.
Port Metro Vancouver has also weighed options to dredge the Second Narrows to allow tankers to pass through the inlet with heavier loads than now allowed.
But the project would still have to undergo two years of environmental assessments, socio-economic studies and full public and First Nations consultations, Hobenshield said.
After that – if Kinder Morgan then formally submits the project – it would still require National Energy Board approval.
For nearly two years, Hobenshield said the existing pipeline has been oversubscribed, leading to a system of rationing customer access.
Although Kinder Morgan has an existing corridor, Hobenshield said a second pipeline may not be able to follow the exact same route because of urban encroachment in parts of the Lower Mainland, including Surrey.
"There are areas where it may be tight to fit another pipe in the existing right-of-way," she said.
She said it's far too soon to say if that means the project could require Kinder Morgan to buy out homes or other properties in some areas.
Besides carrying oil to tankers, the pipeline supplies Chevron's refinery in Burnaby as well as others in Washington State via a branch that crosses the border at Sumas.
Further upstream, Trans Mountain goes through Kamloops and up the Thompson River valley.
The federal Conservative government wants a bigger outlet to the Pacific to increase exports of Alberta oil to Asia and reduce reliance on the U.S. market after the Obama administration blocked the speedy approval of TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline to Texas.
Environmental groups and some First Nations have already said they will oppose the Kinder Morgan twinning, saying increased oil exports through Port Metro Vancouver pose unacceptable risks.
Oil has spilled from Kinder Morgan's system in the past.
More than 1,500 barrels spilled in Burnaby in 2007 after a construction crew ruptured the pipeline.
And nearly 700 barrels spilled into a containment system Jan. 24 at the Sumas Terminal, prompting complaints from Abbotsford residents who said the fumes made them sick.