Federal government vows to act on recommendations while Aboriginal communities remain opposed
The federal government has major gaps to fill to keep its promise to establish a world-class safety system for oil supertankers plying Canadian waters off the coast of British Columbia, an expert panel reports.
Ottawa established the panel to recommend safety enhancements as part of its effort to win support from the B.C. government and First Nations for crude oil pipelines and tanker ports that would give the oil industry access to Asian markets.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver released the report with its 45 recommendations in Vancouver on Tuesday.
“We will act on the advice from the panel and will work to create a world-class tanker safety system here in Canada,” Ms. Raitt said.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has said she would not support Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline unless she is satisfied on five conditions, including world-leading environmental protection and spill response. But Canada still has a ways to go on that score, according to the panel, which was chaired by Captain Gordon Houston, the former president of the Port of Vancouver.
“Generally, we found that the foundational principles of the regime have stood the test of time, but that there are a number of areas that could be improved to enhance Canada’s preparedness and response to ship-source oil spills,” the report said.
The panel recommended that the government do a better job of assessing the risk of spills in specific areas, and ensuring that polluters will pay for any cleanup. And it said Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard need substantial additional resources to enforce regulations and to oversee response preparedness.
The government announced last summer a series of measures aimed at strengthening the safety system. They include increasing inspections for tankers, expanding the aerial surveillance of ships and upgrading Canada’s navigational aids.
New Democratic Party MP Peter Julian said the Conservative government has cut back on some key safety operations on the West Coast, including coast guard stations, and has “no credibility when it comes to preventing oil spills.”
Aboriginal communities heard nothing Tuesday to soften their opposition to Northern Gateway pipeline, said Art Sterritt, executive director of the umbrella group, Coastal First Nations. He said the review panel noted serious deficiencies in Canada’s tanker safety regime, while it focused on spill response rather than prevention.
“They’re looking at response and there is no response,” he said. “There is no technology [to clean up a major spill]. It doesn’t exist. So this would be a disaster waiting to happen.”
Unlimited liability for polluters and increased resources for coast guard, among 45 recommendations
Among the key recommendations:
- Removing the current $161-million liability limit for each spill in favour of an unlimited liability for polluters.
- Annual spill training exercises.
- Regional risk assessments based on local geography.
- Faster emergency responses to spills.
- Increased resources for the coast guard, Environment Canada and Transport Canada to help improve the system.
It’s the first major review of Canada’s ship-source oil spill regime since it was implemented in the mid-1990s and forms a key part of the Conservative federal government’s efforts to reassure Canadians about the effects of an energy resource boom.
The 66-page report notes that two current pipeline proposals alone — by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan — could bring another 600 tankers through British Columbia waters, while posing new hazards by transporting diluted bitumen and liquefied natural gas.
But Ottawa isn’t adopting any of the recommendations, at least not yet. “We now have a base of information and advice from a great expert panel to go forward to do consultation,” said Raitt, although the panel has already talked to stakeholders, ports, oil companies and First Nations in developing the report.
Art Sterritt, the executive director of Coastal First Nations, is critical of the federal government’s approach. “Whether you call it world class or you have a world-class expert panel — it doesn’t matter what you call it. These people don’t have anything that gives Coastal First Nations any comfort.”