Today BC Premier Christy Clark’s government outlined a series of “world leading” standards for environmental protection on the ocean and on land, if pipeline projects like the Northern Gateway and the Kinder Morgan expansion are to go ahead.
One has to wonder what Premier Clark told Prime Minister Stephen Harper when she gave him the “heads up” call on the new policy last week?
After all, the BC Liberal’s call for “world leading” standards comes just weeks after the Harper’s government, in Bill C-38, changed environmental assessment into a pro-industry process, gutted the Fisheries Act protection for habitat and severely cut back the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada.
So far, in the province of British Columbia, with both the governing Liberals and opposition New Democrats have been spectacularly unsuccessful in persuading the Harper government to reverse the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station.
In the background paper released along with the news release on the five conditions for pipeline and tanker safety, the BC government is calling for greatly enhanced Coast Guard resources and tanker monitoring as well as payment for oil spill response.
Among the conditions for marine safety enhancement BC is asking:
- Current response times and planning capacity are less stringent than other jurisdictions like Alaska and Norway. For example, for the types of tankers being proposed for Canada’s west coast, Alaska requires planning for 300,000 barrels. In Canada, response organizations are only required to maintain response plans for spills up to approximately 70,000 barrels (10,000 tonnes). Further, Alaska allows responders 72 hours to reach the spill site, while Canada allows 72 hours plus travel time, which can sometimes add days to the response.
- In shared bodies of water, the United States’ requirements exceed Canada’s. For example, the United States requires escort tugs for laden tankers and mandates industry pay for designated and strategically placed emergency response tugs. Canada does not have any similar requirements.
- Ensure the Canadian Coast Guard adopts a unified command/incident command structure.
- The Canadian Coast Guard has a unique response system which is only used in B.C. The United States, companies and governments worldwide use a unified command/incident command response structure for a range of emergency responses, including marine spills. By bringing the Coast Guard under this system, an effective, co-ordinated response is better ensured while reducing layers of approvals that can delay critical, prompt decision-making.
At Enbridge community briefings in Kitimat last year, the company’s own marine experts said that the 72 hour response time from Vancouver and Victoria for a possible spill in the Douglas Channel was completely inadequate. In its fillings with the Joint Review Panel, Enbridge has proposed setting up and funding its own response stations along the BC coast, although so far, Enbridge has not provided any details on how the response stations would be set up and how they would work.
In 2010, the auditor general reported that Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard have not used a consistent or systematic approach to tanker traffic and spills nor are there formal processes for ensuring that risks are reassessed.
Sheila Fraser found that
- Procedures are not in place to verify the Canadian Coast Guard’s readiness. In other words, there is currently no process for providing assurance that the federal component of the oil spill response system is ready to respond effectively.
- The Coast Guard had not conducted a comprehensive assessment of its response capacity since 2000.
- The results of the Coast Guard’s response efforts—which range from identifying the source of pollution to full cleanup—are poorly documented. There are also limitations with the Coast Guard’s system for tracking oil spills and other marine pollution incidents. These gaps affect its ability to conduct reliable analysis of trends in spills and know how well it is achieving its objectives of minimizing the environmental, economic, and public safety impacts of marine pollution incidents.
In the United States Senate, Canadian Coast Guard response for an oil spill in the Strait of Juan de Fuaca was described as “call the Americans”
For some search and rescue missions the federal government has indicated that it will rely more on the all-volunteer Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue service (formerly the Coast Guard Auxiliary) which is already stretched thin in some areas of the Pacific Coast, rather than the full time professionals from the Coast Guard service itself.
On the industry response, BC says
The federal government should review its rules and requirements to ensure industry-funded response funds are sustainable and adequate to fully cover a major response without requiring public money. Currently, the total amount of ship owner insurance and industry funding available for spill response is $1.3 billion. By comparison, the U.S. federal government maintains a spill fund that is forecast to grow to nearly $4 billion by 2016.
Again given the government backs and the Conservative government’s close ties with the energy industry, one has to wonder what if those provisions can be enforced, especially since more and more of the energy industry in Canada is owned off shore, increasingly in China with its sorry environmental record. (Globe and Mail CNOOC’s Nexen bid: A new test for Harper)
If there are to be “world-leading” standards for environmental protection in this country, it has to be paid for. So the question remains, who will pay for it? The federal government is cutting back, Alberta doesn’t want to raise the relatively small royalties it charges the energy industry and Canada is not likely to get a contribution from China.
Who pays to protect the coast and the northern interior going to be a big question for Stephen Harper in the coming months. With the polls showing Adrian Dix and the NDP leading in contention for a provincial election next year, and now with Christy Clark, apparently, demanding higher standards, will Harper open the Ottawa wallet now, will he wait until he faces a much tougher BC premier in Adrian Dix next year, or will he stubbornly hold his course of forcing Canada into his vision of a conservative, limited government nation, with, in the case of an oil spill on land or sea, that will cost the federal treasury billions, even if the energy industry picks up some of the tab?