An oil spill off B.C. won’t be able to control itself

Has there ever been a successful clean up from a massive tanker spill? Should an accident occur involving a large ship, serious inadequacies in B.C.'s response capabilities would hinder rescue and containment operations.

The government of British Columbia has announced five requirements that must be met before it approves any new heavy-oil pipeline from the Alberta oil sands, such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.

The province’s primary concern is about getting a bigger piece of the oil royalty pie, which the Alberta government has immediately rejected out of hand. Economist Robyn Allan, former CEO of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), sums it up this way:

“It is impossible to compensate for all environmental damage when it occurs because so much is left out of financial estimates of what constitutes clean-up and compensation. What the premier seems to be suggesting is the introduction of some groundbreaking revenue sharing to ensure that after we are harmed, at least some of the hurt will be paid for. That’s like saying you can beat me as long as you promise to pay the hospital bills.”

Another one of the B.C. government’s dead-on-arrival requirements calls for “world-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems for B.C.’s coastline.” This is not even remotely close to being in place, and likely could never be met given both the current realities of oil spill clean-up technology and the policies of the federal government.

The marine approaches to the coast of northern B.C. and the port of Kitimat are a dangerous coastline for ships. Navigation is more complex than in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in Valdez Arm. At least 225 supertankers would leave Kitimat annually, loaded with over 300 million litres of diluted bitumen for shipment to Asian and American markets. An additional number of tankers would enter Kitimat carrying condensate. Wright Sound, where tankers would enter B.C.’s Inside Passage, is a busy place for ships. More than 5,000 vessels move through it annually, and it is not without a history of accidents.

Should an accident occur involving a large ship, serious inadequacies in B.C.’s response capabilities would hinder rescue and containment operations. B.C.’s south coast relies heavily on the availability of American rescue tugs based out of Washington state to respond to incidents. Additionally, procedures between the B.C. government and the federal government to coordinate responses to large vessel incidents are not well harmonized.

A November 2010 Postmedia article revealed that according to an internal audit, “The Canadian Coast Guard lacks the training, equipment and management systems to fulfill its duties to respond to offshore pollution incidents such as oil spills . . . The audit paints an alarming picture of an agency that would play a key role in Canada’s response to a major oil spill off the world’s longest coastline.” The article also identifies the relatively paltry budget of $9.8 million for the coast guard’s environmental response unit.

This was the state of affairs before the federal government announced the closure of B.C.’s command centre for emergency oil spills. These closures come at a time when B.C. is facing the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipeline projects, both of which will be accompanied by major escalations in oil tanker traffic. Neither the Coast Guard or Transport Canada have the capacity to deal with a catastrophic oil spill, so exactly what entity does the provincial government think will fill the gap?

But a larger question arises: Has there ever been a successful clean up from a massive tanker spill? Oil spill technology only works in ideal conditions with very little wind and waves. More importantly, the behavior of diluted bitumen once spilled in the ocean is a complete unknown. The condensate component is highly toxic and not recoverable through conventional oil spill technology, and once it dissipates it is probable the oil will sink or float submerged below the surface. What kind of technology is going to deal with that?

As a formal intervener in the federal National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel (JRP) process for Northern Gateway, Raincoast Conservation Foundation produced a large amount of substantive technical and scientific evidence analyzing the Enbridge environmental socio-economic assessment. Tom Gunton, professor of resource and environmental planning at Simon Fraser University, recently pointed out that “B.C. has dealt itself out of the process, unfortunately, by failing to submit evidence” to the JRP.

Parenthetically, unlike the B.C. government, we submitted our evidence by the required deadline to ensure its inclusion in the JRP process. One of the issues we addressed is the potential impact to the marine environment from oil tankers. The following excerpt is from the conclusion of that section:

“The environmental risks introduced by tankers are first associated with the transportation of petroleum products such as bitumen, condensate, light fuel, bunker oil and crude. The spill of these substances from catastrophic or chronic releases threatens the presence of countless species, food webs and ecosystems that are relied upon for subsistence, cultural, social, economic, physical and spiritual well being by an untold number of individuals and communities. In many cases, hydrocarbon impacts to species and habitats are additive in terms of the cumulative impacts and stressors that coastal ecosystems are under.”

A version of this article was previously published in the Vancouver Sun, and at The Huffington Post on August 2, 2012.

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