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mark hume

The federal government has launched a major new project, known as the World Class Initiative, which is intended to make Canada's waters safer from shipping accidents and gain the social licence needed to increase marine transportation of oil and gas.

But the primary initial focus of that project may surprise people. It's aimed at Douglas Channel, the long, narrow inlet that leads to Kitimat, which at this point is not a major petro shipping route.

In December, the National Energy Board's joint review panel recommended conditional approval of Enbridge's controversial Northern Gateway project.

But cabinet has not yet ruled on whether the pipeline can go ahead. If it does, up to 250 oil tankers a year would start navigating British Columbia's Douglas Channel, calling at the Kitimat marine terminal.

The federal government is not waiting for that decision, however, and is already pushing ahead on a project intended to give Canada "a world class tanker safety system."

Denis Lebel, then minister of transport, and Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources, described it that way when they laid out the broad strokes of the program in a joint news conference in Vancouver last March.

"There will be no pipeline development without rigorous environmental protection measures and the tanker safety initiatives we are announcing today are an important aspect of our plan for responsible resource development," Mr. Oliver said at the time.

He announced several measures to strengthen the nation's tanker safety system, including increased ship inspections, a review of existing pilotage and tug-escort requirements, new aids to navigation and scientific research into what happens when bitumen is spilled in the marine environment.

What he didn't say was that Douglas Channel was going to be the model for the development of that system, which is expected to be in place on all three coasts by 2018.

Several departments are involved and at least $120-million in funding has already been secured.

When the government was asked about the timing, funding and goals of the World Class Initiative project last week, officials responded by sending a link to a 185-page review of marine safety related to the Enbridge project that makes no mention of the World Class Initiative.

Although the government announced the general objectives of the project in Vancouver, the details so far have been kept quiet.

When a group of research scientists at the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences, near Victoria, were briefed on the project, they were told, said one who was there, "not to repeat to anyone the information to be discussed at this meeting."

What they heard was that $78-million had been approved over three years for phase 1a, "[to] focus on Douglas Channel and diluted bitumen. "

An additional $42-million was in place for phase 1b, "to operationalize the elements of 1a so that there is a system running 24/7 that provides an oil spill response capability for Douglas Channel/Kitimat area … [and to] build an end-to-end modelling system for Canada."

One slide that flashed on the screen stated: "The World Class Initiative is huge."

Another stated: "Social licence is needed to increase transport of oil and gas."

The scientist who attended that session said the oil-spill modelling system proposed for Douglas Channel would be the most sophisticated this county has ever seen.

"Presently there is nothing remotely comparable to this in place in Canada," he said.

There can be no doubt that Canadians want to ensure oil-tanker traffic is as safe as it can be. But by focusing on Douglas Channel, Ottawa can only fuel the fear (already widely felt in B.C.) that the federal government made up its mind to approve the Enbridge project before the NEB hearings finished.