The Canadian Navy's two aging oil tanker supply ships risk being barred from docking at European and American ports over environmental concerns, warns an internal cabinet-level briefing note.
The document, obtained by The Globe and Mail, warns the possible bans may force the tankers to stay near home and impact the navy's ability to act independently around the world.
The single-hulled tankers are more than 40 years old and are out of step with international efforts to phase out such ships in favour of double-hulled vessels that are less likely to cause a toxic spill. The global movement to ban single-hull tankers set timelines after the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, which until this year's BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico was the worst oil spill in American history.
The Conservative government announced in July that it will spend $2.6-billion to replace the navy's two auxiliary oil replenishment vessels - the HMCS Protecteur and the HMCS Preserver (currently docked for maintenance) - with two or three new joint support ships, which will be double-hulled. However, the first new ship is not expected until at least 2017. The internal document indicates there will be problems between now and then.
"These vessels are single-hulled, which violates most international environmental standards," states a February, 2010 briefing note provided to Treasury Board president Stockwell Day by his senior public servant, Michelle d'Auray.
Mr. Day, who is responsible for finding savings to tackle the federal deficit, had requested a briefing on planned spending by the navy.
The note, which indicates it is based on discussions with National Defence officials, warns exemptions for single-hulled vessels are about to expire.
"These vessels have been grandfathered for most European ports until later this year and in the U.S. until 2015. Should the [vessels]be unable to enter European ports after this year, their use may be restricted to continental operations and would impact the Navy's ability to sustain a Task Group," it states. The note was released to The Globe in response to a request under the Access to Information Act.
The tankers are key to the rest of the navy fleet because they provide the fuel needed for long-range missions.
Without being able to send out supply ships, the Canadian Navy wouldn't really be an independent blue-water navy, said Ken Bowering, vice-president of the Navy League of Canada, and a retired navy commander.
"The support ships, the tankers, provide that ability to stay at sea for extended periods with fuel, with spare parts, food, ammunition, if they need that," Mr. Bowering said.
He said he hopes the U.S. and European countries would give Canadian ships an extension on environmental rules to allow the aging supply ships to dock in foreign ports.
A navy official was unable to confirm Thursday whether the ships will in fact be banned from docking in Europe and the United States. Because the European Union, the United States and the United Nations' International Maritime Organization have all set targets with various exemptions, it is unclear when exemptions will end.
Commander Denise LaViolette said there are other options if the bans materialize.
Many operations are often run jointly with other nations, so foreign refuelling tankers could be used, she said. Also, smaller navy vessels could still dock and refuel independently. A third option is for the aging tankers to stay offshore in European and American waters and dock if necessary at foreign ports that do not have a ban.
"Is it going to have an impact? Sure, but there's already other options for us so it won't have a significant impact on our operations," she said.
In Washington, the BP spill has rekindled Congress's interest in eliminating single-hull tankers. The Democratic chair of the armed services committee, Gene Taylor, said in July that he was unpleasantly surprised to discover there are still single-hull tankers operating in the U.S. Navy.
"I think we could all imagine the 60 Minutes episodes … if one of those tankers, by some accident, hit a rock, ran over its own anchor, or any of the other things that cause single-hulled vessels to start leaking oil," he said.
With a report from Campbell Clark