Ban on oil tanker traffic off B.C.'s coast gets opposition push

Vancouver Sun, Post Media News, December 7, 2010

OTTAWA — The opposition has stepped up its pressure on the Harper government to ban oil-tanker traffic off the B.C. coast, passing a motion in the House of Commons calling on the Conservatives to legislate a formal moratorium.

The opposition parties teamed up Tuesday to pass a motion introduced by New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen urging the government to immediately propose legislation to "ban bulk oil tanker traffic" through the Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, off the north coast of British Columbia.

Despite Conservative opposition, the motion passed by a vote of 143-138, after both the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois supported it.

The motion passed on the same day that Parliament's environmental watchdog declared that Canada isn't ready to respond to a major oil spill emanating from a tanker or other vessel.

Scott Vaughan, commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, said he was "troubled" by the government's lack of readiness, given that at least one oil spill is reported to the Canadian Coast Guard every day.

Cullen said the government needs to clear up the grey area in its policy on tanker traffic along the West Coast.

"They need to clarify what the actual policy is in Canada. In light of the commissioner's report today, this is the only thing that will give Canadians assurance that our coastal waters are safe," he said.

Tanker traffic along Canada's west and Arctic coasts is expected to increase in the coming years as companies seek new energy routes to Asia and melting ice clears the way for more shipping activity through the Northwest Passage.

Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. has proposed a $5.5 billion plan to build two pipelines that would carry oil from the Edmonton region to a port in Kitimat, B.C., creating a major petroleum route from the oilsands to China and other growing Asian energy markets.

In a 2004 report, the former Liberal government reaffirmed its support for a ban on tanker traffic along B.C.'s northern coast since 1972, when the federal government imposed a moratorium on petroleum drilling off the West Coast.

But last year, the Harper government quietly determined that the moratorium doesn't apply to tanker traffic. Under a voluntary agreement, tankers carrying crude oil from Alaska to California do not pass along the B.C. coast. But there is no formal tanker ban in place.

Before the vote on the motion, Transport Minister Chuck Strahl said the voluntary "exclusion zone" is closely monitored and strictly enforced.

"Oil tanker traffic cannot come within 25 to 80 miles off the West Coast depending on where it is," Strahl told the Commons. "That exclusion zone is in place. It is going to stay in place. We are not going to change it."

Vaughan's audit looked at Canada's readiness for a major oil spill from a tanker, such as the one unleashed by the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska in 1989. Transport Canada is the lead regulatory agency in charge of preparing for such spills, while the Canadian Coast Guard would manage the federal response at the scene.

Under Canada's response regime, the company operating a tanker that causes an oil spill would be expected to lead the cleanup efforts. But Vaughan said this summer's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico showed that such an approach can be perilous.

"The regime that we examined is based on the polluter pays principle, meaning that if the operator is responsible for the pollution, they are responsible for cleaning it up," said Vaughan. "But . . . if there's a major spill, we know that coast guard is going to have to intervene, and I think what you saw in the Gulf is that if there are major spills involved, the consequences can be catastrophic, and that's why we've said the Canadian government needs to be as ready as possible."

Vaughan found that risk assessments at both Transport Canada and the coast guard haven't been conducted in a consistent or systematic way.

"As a result, knowledge of risks in Canada to spills from ships, which is important for effective emergency planning, is not complete or up to date," the audit concluded.

Between 2007 and 2009, the coast guard responded to 4,160 incidents involving spills of oil, chemicals and other pollutants. Of those, roughly 2,000 cases involved vessels ranging from fishing boats to oil tankers.

Nevertheless, the coast guard hasn't carried out a comprehensive assessment of its response capacity since 2000, meaning it doesn't know how much equipment it should have. The coast guard also lacks a reliable system for tracking spills, the audit found.

All Photography © Ian McAllister unless otherwise noted.
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