Ottawa increases tanker restrictions
With one crude oil pipeline to the B.C. coast in environmental hearings and another waiting to apply, the federal government has announced stricter rules for foreign oil tanker inspections and more coastal flights looking for signs of oil spills.
A new Canadian Coast Guard incident command system, improved hazard markers for shipping, increased surveillance flights and research into the hazards of heavy oil were announced in Vancouver Monday by federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.
The government has also tabled new legislation it says will strengthen requirements for pollution prevention and response at oil facilities and introduce new offences and penalties related to pollution.
Foreign tankers will have to be inspected annually, a rule now in place for Canadian vessels, to see if they are equipped with double hulls and other safety features.
A tanker safety expert panel was also announced to review current standards and recommend further rules. Lebel and Oliver described the program as moving to a "world-class tanker safety system," the term used by B.C. Premier Christy Clark last year when she announced conditions for provincial acceptance of increased heavy oil shipments by pipeline and tanker.
Oliver said in an interview that the changes are not a response to the B.C. government's demands, but rather B.C.'s need to deal with growing shipping. When Clark presented five conditions last summer, Oliver immediately agreed with four of them, related to oil spill safety and aboriginal consultation. The fifth was an unspecified "fair share" of revenues from oil exports.
"There hasn't been a single major tanker spill off the coast of British Columbia, ever," Oliver said. "But we want to make sure we keep that record, and in the very unlikely event that something untoward happens, we want to be able to respond quickly and comprehensively."
B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said the announcement is a welcome step.
"We'll have to look at how it compares with other regimes, but from I see here, it goes a long way toward getting to what we understand to be a world-class system," Lake said. "If we're going to have this material moved through the province, the environment and the taxpayer have to be protected to the fullest extent."
B.C. hired an Alaska consulting firm in February to conduct B.C.'s own review of spill response on the coast. Lake said that is needed with or without proposed oil pipelines, since there are daily crude shipments from Alaska, exports of Alberta heavy crude from Burnaby, and a general increase in shipping for Asia-Pacific trade.
Fuels are shipped to locations all along the coast, and freighters and other ships all carry large amounts of bunker oil for their own fuel.
Transport Canada reports about 1,500 tanker movements on the West Coast in 2009-10, among 475,000 total ship movements that year.
The only major oil spill on the B.C. coast in 20 years was the sinking of the BC Ferries' Queen of the North in 2006.