Federal response system needs upgrading: expert panel
By Peter O'Neil and Gordon Hoekstra
Canada's oil spill response lacks federal leadership and isn't prepared for disasters in high-risk areas including southern B.C., according to a federal panel.
The panel's report, released Tuesday, was based on existing tanker volume, not the increased numbers of tankers involved if the Northern Gateway pipeline is built or the Kinder Morgan pipeline to Burnaby is twinned.
The panelists called on Ottawa to remove the cap on industry-funded compensation in the event of a massive spill, which is set at $1.3 billion.
"Canadian taxpayers should not bear any liability for spills in Canadian waters," said the report.
Among its 45 recommendations, the panel called for Ottawa to create new federal powers to fine oil spill response organizations, ensure responders are prepared for "worst-case" scenarios such as a spill the size of an Exxon Valdez and to properly fund the Canadian Coast Guard.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt would not say whether Ottawa would follow the recommendations, promising only to consult industry, communities and other government agencies in Canada before making decisions.
"Make no mistake, we want a world-class marine tanker safety system. We will achieve that, and this is a great step," said Raitt.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who was in Vancouver with Raitt for the report's release, said it's essential for Canada to diversify its markets by using tankers to deliver its natural resources to an "energy-hungry" world.
While the three panelists concluded Canada's prevention and spill preparedness and response regime is "fundamentally sound," Ottawa "can and should make important improvements."
The three Harper government-appointed panelists said Canada's "rigid" national" preparedness plan fails to adequately target specific high-risk regions.
"For example, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Canada should be prepared for a spill of crude oil due to the volumes being moved and the environmental and socio-economic sensitivities present."
Because the assessment was of "current" risks, it ranked much of the coastline of British Columbia as at very low risk for an oil spill. That included the northern region where tankers would transport bitumen from Enbridge's proposed $6-billion Northern Gateway export pipeline if it's approved.
The panel was part of a multipronged federal strategy to convince the public - and the B.C. government - that Canada is ready for a major spill.
If both the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan projects are built, the number of tankers docking on the B.C. coast would jump by about 650 a year.
The B.C. Liberal government has already said it won't support heavy oil pipelines unless a world-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery system is in place. B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said it's too early to say whether the federal panel recommendations could meet the province's marine criteria.
"But certainly, I think, (the federal report) indicates not only their serious but also their commitment to achieving that goal we've laid out," Polak told reporters.
Environmentalists and some First Nations greeted the report with skepticism.
Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt said Ottawa was trying to give the impression they were taking action, when they were not.
"Until they learn to clean it up and until they accept responsibility for the spills, I think British Columbians are going to tell them to take their oil somewhere else," said Sterritt, who attended the announcement.
Living Oceans Society executive director Karen Wristen said the report ignores it would take many years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to put in place the needed regulation, infrastructure, training and human resources.
"You can't go from zero to worldclass at the stroke of a pen," said Wristen.
The panel cited a new federal study which concluded that Canada faces a major oil tanker spill of more than 10,000 tonnes once every 242 years.
The areas with the highest probability of a large spill were the southern tip of Vancouver Island, the Cabot Strait, including southern Newfoundland and the eastern coast of Cape Breton Island, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River.
The southern tip of Vancouver Island was deemed particularly at risk because of its proximity to tankers sailing to and from Washington state.
Smaller spills of 10 to 1,000 tonnes were found to be most probable in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the southern coast of British Columbia, including Vancouver Island.
The panel also found Canada is not adequately prepared to move quickly on spills, and is overly reliant on "mechanical" recovery equipment such as skimmers which, even in calm waters, can only recover five to 15 per cent of a sill.
The panel said more emphasis should be put on countermeasures such as physical containment, burning and chemical dispersants.
The panel also found there is confusion about who is responsible for what, and said there's a perception there is no clear federal leadership.
Three key federal bodies - Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, and Environment Canada - tend to operate in "silos" with no clear indication of who's in charge, said the report.
The panel was chaired by Capt. Gordon Houston, former president of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. It also included Quebec lawyer Richard Gaudreau, an expert in maritime law, and Michael Sinclair, former director of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, N.S.