The federal government pushed back at suggestions it is advancing an energy agenda at the cost of the environment, announcing amendments to the Canada Shipping Act and eight new tanker-safety measures in British Columbia, where there have been deep concerns about pipeline safety and spill control.
Against the backdrop of Vancouver's harbour, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Transport Minister Denis Lebel outlined their plans, which also include a tanker-safety expert panel to recommend further measures. Over five years, the plan will cost $120-million.
British Columbians have expressed widespread concern about the prospect of bitumen being piped into the province through the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline for shipment to Asia. There has also been alarm about Kinder Morgan's plans to expand the Trans-Mountain pipeline from Alberta into the Lower Mainland. Premier Christy Clark has said the province won't back Gateway without the meeting of five conditions, which include "world-class" spill-response measures.
The ministers dubbed their measures as steps towards a "World-Class Tanker Safety System."
"What we're announcing today is a result of our listening to British Columbians and responding to their concerns," Mr. Oliver told reporters in a news conference.
While he noted there has been no catastrophic tanker spill in West Coast Canadian waters, Mr. Oliver said polluters would cover the costs if there were. "Let me be clear: Polluters must pay for all costs related to an oil-spill cleanup. While the current marine safety regime has served Canada well, more research will help us build a stronger system that can meet future needs."
The eight measures include increased tanker inspections, expanded aerial surveillance of ships, a review of pilotage and tug-escort requirements, expanded research on non-conventional petroleum products like diluted bitumen, and more ports, starting with Kitimat, being designated for traffic-control measures. Amendments to the Canada Shipping Act, 2001, to be enacted in the new Safeguarding Canada's Seas and Skies Act, are to include measures to bolster current requirements for pollution prevention and response at oil-handling facilities, introduce new offences for contraventions of the act and extend pollution penalties.
The panel will be the first since the 1990s to review tanker safety. Gordon Houston, former president and CEO of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, lawyer Richard Gaudreau, and Michael Sinclair, former director of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, are to conduct their review and report back by September, 2014.
Mr. Lebel said he thought the federal measures would satisfy the B.C. government, but the response from Victoria was restrained.
B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said it appeared that Ottawa has come a long way on the issue of spill safety in terms of meeting the need for increased regulation, although he added he would have to study Monday's announcement more closely before being able to provide a more detailed response.
"What I have seen is very good," Mr. Lake said. "They have expressed a lot of the concerns that we have expressed in the past."
Mr. Lake's BC Liberals are facing a date with the voters in the May 14 provincial election, and the minister pointedly suggested that Ms. Clark's policies had a role in the federal position. "It's clear that Ottawa has heard loud and clear from the Premier's call for world-class oil-spill prevention and response regimes on the marine environment."
Mr. Lebel sidestepped questions about closing the Kitsilano Coast Guard base as Ottawa was considering spill response. Mr. Lake said the move seemed "a little strange" to cut those resources when there is an expectation of greater tanker traffic.
Still, Bill Wareham, a science-program manager for the David Suzuki Foundation, said all the proposed new vigilence would have marginal effects in the event of a spill, so it is better to avoid increasing tanker traffiic even at the expense of prosperity.
In Ottawa, Alberta Premier Alison Redford praised the federal announcement. Ms. Redford has been at odds with her B.C. counterpart, Ms. Clark, over the Gateway project, which Alberta backs strongly.
"It's an important part of what we need to do as Canadians," Ms. Redford told reporters. "For the federal government to be taking more steps with respect to monitoring and mitigation is important."
With a report from Shawn McCarthy