Federal panel says time to upgrade tanker ship oil spill rules as traffic jumps

VANCOUVER – Potential polluters should be prepared for a worst-case scenario and face unlimited liability in the case of an oil spill from one of their tanker ships, a government-appointed panel recommends.

The three-member panel of experts has delivered a report with 45 recommendations for improving Canada’s preparedness for oil spills from tankers and barges.

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 federal Conservative government’s efforts to reassure Canadians about the impacts of an energy resource boom.

The 66-page report notes that two current pipeline proposals alone — by Enbridge (TSX:ENB) and Kinder Morgan — could bring another 600 tankers through British Columbia waters, while posing new hazards by transporting diluted bitumen and liquefied natural gas.

“The very appointment of this panel demonstrates our commitment to protect Canadians and our environment,” Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said Tuesday at a news conference in Vancouver.

“The panel’s independence and its investigation and the extent of its work shows that we are serious about obtaining clear advice in a timely manner.”

Raitt listed a series of actions she said the government has already taken to improve tanker safety, including a promise to increase inspections of foreign tankers and a study on the behaviour of diluted bitumen in sea water.

Raitt said the goal of the panel’s report is to improve on “an already robust tanker safety system.”

The study recommends removing the current $161-million liability limit for each spill in favour of an unlimited liability for polluters.

“We feel that potential polluters should be prepared, through their contracted Response Organizations, to respond to a worst-case discharge, whether it be the full cargo of a tanker or a complete release of bunker fuel on board a vessel,” it says.

Its executive summary makes the point even more clearly: “Canadian taxpayers should not bear any liability for spills in Canadian waters.”

The report recommends annual spill training exercises, and regional risk assessments based on local geography. And it calls for faster emergency responses to spills.

“In our view, the current response time planning standards will not ensure the best possible outcomes in some spill scenarios.”

The panel also says current planning is “particularly lacking” in the area of cleaning and rehabilitating oiled wildlife and the management of oily waste from spill recoveries.

The experts also recommend increased resources for the coast guard, Environment Canada and Transport Canada to help improve the system.

Joe Oliver, minister of Natural Resources, said the federal government is committed to world-class safety for the transportation of natural resources by pipeline, rail or tanker.

“This is what British Columbians expect and this is what we will deliver. On this there can be no compromise.”

Raitt said she will now study the report, speak with stakeholders about their views and discuss it with her colleagues in cabinet.

The report is the first of two that the government commissioned from the three-member panel back in March.

A second study will deal with spill hazards in the Arctic as well as an examination of hazardous and noxious spills — such as bitumen and liquefied natural gas — on marine environments.

British Columbia Environment Minister Mary Polak said she has a “high degree of confidence” the federal government is serious about the safety and movement of tankers up and down the coast.

“The evidence shows that as we put forward our concerns, the federal government has responded,” she added.

However, Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, a group that has openly opposed the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, said the federal government’s readiness for an oil spill is dismal. He said during one exercise in Vancouver’s harbour last week, crews took six hours to get booms out into the water.

“We get no comfort on the prevention side, we get no comfort on the readiness side, and there is no response for an oil spill of the tanker,” he said.

Alexandra Woodsworth, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Strait Alliance, said in a statement the Salish Sea is already in the highest-risk category for an oil spill, without taking into consideration the increase in tanker traffic expected with the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.

“When it comes to oil spill response, we need prevention because there is no cure. And the best way to minimize the risk of polluting our waters is to stand up for our coast and our communities and say no to Kinder Morgan.”

Caitlyn Vernon, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club BC, said in a statement while her organization agrees more improvements are needed to deal with the existing tanker traffic on the coast, no amount of safety precautions can justify increasing tanker traffic.

“Regardless of who pays for oil spill cleanup efforts, it is British Columbians who will live with the consequences.”

— With files from Bruce Cheadle in Ottawa