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B.C. is still working out what a “world-class” oil-spill response means, Environment Minister Mary Polak says.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

With two major studies now in hand demonstrating how poorly prepared B.C. is for a marine oil spill, Environment Minister Mary Polak says the government still doesn't know what it would take to achieve a "world-class" response system.

"We have not arrived at a place yet where we can say, 'Here are the elements of a world-class response,'" Ms. Polak said in an interview Wednesday.

Her ministry is reviewing this week's report from a federal panel that found major gaps in the safety system for oil supertankers plying Canadian waters off the coast. That did not take into account the hundreds of additional tankers expected to pass along the B.C. coast if two proposed oil pipelines are built.

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The provincial government recently released its own study that found efforts to clean up tanker spills would leave most of the oil on the ocean.

The federal government, through Transport Canada, holds the lead role for setting legislated standards for on-water marine spill response. Ottawa is promising to improve the marine safety regime as part of its bid to win support for new pipelines and tanker ports designed to get Alberta's heavy oil to Asian markets.

But B.C. Premier Christy Clark has maintained her government will not support the development of new heavy-oil projects unless five conditions are met – including the ability to provide a world-class response to oil spills. Ms. Clark first outlined her province's demands regarding the transport of heavy oil across B.C. in July, 2012.

Ms. Polak said the two oil-spill reports together will provide the basis for devising a formal policy to spell out what precisely the province requires. "We have to present something to British Columbians, and the test will be, will British Columbians give it the nod."

It's not clear how high the bar will be set. In its legal submission on the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal last May, the B.C. government stated that the goal was to have "effective" response to oil spills. In that document, the province concluded that an effective response to an oil spill "will be impossible or severely constrained" in a wide range of scenarios. "For most open ocean spills, no oil from a spill is recovered," the submission states.

But at other times, the province has talked about "world-class" or "world-leading" response, and Ms. Clark has said she believes that can be done.

Will Horter, executive director of the Dogwood Initiative, said environmentalists are worried that the province is lowering its standards on marine safety.

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"People are getting very nervous about what the B.C. government's intentions are," he said. "Christy Clark ran ads during the provincial election saying she would stand up for B.C., her government made specific submissions saying the Enbridge proposal was inadequate. What has changed since then?"

Ms. Polak said she isn't backing away from the standard of effective cleanup.

"It's got to be all three. Effective, world leading and world class. Our intention is to be the best in the world." She said she is encouraged that Ottawa appears committed to addressing the current shortfalls in safety.

The federal government is expected to have recommendations from its environmental assessment of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline as early as next week, but Ms. Polak said she doesn't know when she would be able to say what it would take to satisfy her government that the pipeline could be built. Although the province gave up control of the environmental review to the federal government, Ms. Clark has suggested the province could strangle any project it opposes through other regulatory means.

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