The federal government has announced a funding boost for marine pollution surveillance as it attempts to shore up environmental protections in British Columbia and water down opposition to oil export plans.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said on Wednesday that funding for the aerial surveillance program will increase from $5-million to roughly $10-million a year over the next five years, allowing the country's three surveillance aircraft to increase the number of flights to spot oil spills off Canadian coasts.
The fleet currently spends 2,080 hours a year in the air, and Ms. Raitt said that time will increase to 3,750 with the new money.
"On the West Coast, what it means is that surveillance hours increase from 500 to 700 hours until 2017-2018, and at that time, it's going to increase to 1,200 hours," she said at a media event in Richmond.
A Transport Canada official said the West Coast plane currently flies five to six times a week, up to 300 kilometres off the coast.
Ms. Raitt said with the increase, more patrols will be dispatched in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Harbour, the waters just off Metro Vancouver.
Surveillance will also increase around Prince Rupert and Kitimat, where tankers would ship diluted bitumen from the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline if the project is approved.
Canada's surveillance fleet consists of one aircraft located in Vancouver, another in Moncton and one in Ottawa. Each aircraft is responsible for a section of Canada's 200,000-kilometre coastline along three oceans, and each is equipped with instruments to record and report marine pollution below.
Wednesday's announcement is another in a series of federal measures aimed at assuaging fears about tanker safety and marine protection in the westernmost province, where opposition threatens the development of two major oil pipeline projects.
Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's proposal to triple the capacity of its existing Trans Mountain line together would result in about 400 more tankers traversing the waters off the B.C. coast annually.
Over the past year, with both projects facing staunch opposition, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has been to B.C. to announce greater administrative penalties for polluters, mandatory marine response plans for oil terminal operators and increased annual inspections for all tankers.
Darryl Anderson, a marine transport analyst at Wave Point Consulting, said aerial surveillance can at times be an effective preventive and response measure. But in areas such as the relatively narrow Strait of Juan de Fuca, where vessel traffic is always heavy and risks of a spill are greater, the increased surveillance will probably do little, he said.
"What's missing from the federal response is how these increased aviation hours are going to be linked to the risks," he said.
Ms. Raitt said the surveillance aircraft have equipment that can detect as little as one litre of oil spilled into the water, but critics are steadfast.
"All of this stuff is all window dressing," said Art Sterritt of the Coastal First Nations, which opposes the Northern Gateway project. "They come along and say we're going to have the best detection in the world, we're going to have the best cleanup system in the world. But the reality is the best cleanup system in the world right now can't clean up anything."
Eoin Madden, with the Wilderness Committee, said more flights could mean a quicker response but little can be done about a spill of diluted bitumen, the heavier crude oil product that would be shipped from B.C. "No matter how much you spend on these flights, less than 10 per cent of the oil is recoverable for many oil spills in normal sea conditions," he said.
A recent study by the federal government concluded that diluted bitumen does sink in salt water when pounded by waves and mixed with sediment.
A "world-class" marine oil spill response system is one of five conditions the B.C. government laid out for its support for any oil pipeline projects.
In an e-mail response to a request for an interview, B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak welcomed the money. "The province is encouraged by today's announcement and the steps the federal government continues to take towards a world-class tanker safety system," the e-mail said.