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Tanker hazards could throw wrench into pipeline debate

A study commissioned by the B.C. government into oil-spill preparedness confirmed what most already knew: As things stand, a tanker accident would almost certainly cause an environmental disaster.

Premier Christy Clark had said as much last week when she declared in an interview that Canada is woefully under-resourced when it comes to having a plan to deal with the fallout from a tanker mishap in coastal waters. But the report by U.S.-based Nuka Research, released this week, put the scope of that vulnerability in grim, black-and-white terms.

The analysis identified a range of gaps in Canada's current response design that included everything from not having enough rescue tugs to the absence of laws that lay out how parties affected by a spill will be compensated. More than anything, however, the report made clear that when it comes to dealing with a major oil leak, it's not a question of how it will all be cleaned up because it won't: Even in the best-case scenario sketched out by Nuka, nearly 50 per cent of the oil remained in the water after spill-response efforts were conducted.

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In most cases it was much higher.

The question now is how this report affects the oil pipeline debate in the province. B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said it provides a blueprint for the "world-class" oil-recovery response system the provincial government has stipulated must be in place for any pipeline proposal to be considered. Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver welcomed the findings and said Ottawa shared the same objectives as the B.C. government.

The study comes amid evident softening of the hard line Ms. Clark was taking on pipelines before the May provincial election. Since her smashing majority win, she's struck a more conciliatory, less strident tone. She and Alberta Premier Alison Redford are now best buddies, the frost that once enveloped their relationship now utterly thawed.

As the leader of a government that professes to be all about "getting to yes" when it comes to economic development, Ms. Clark would undoubtedly like to find a way to make pipelines a reality; or at least a pipeline. For that to happen, however, there is going to have to be a massive cleanup effort, one that involves the distressingly inadequate oil-spill response strategy currently in place. The cost of that could be in the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even then, it seems unlikely the government will allow oil tanker traffic near the north coast, an area central to the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. In its brief to the National Energy Board hearings into the Enbridge application last May, the B.C. government said that in most spills no oil is recovered. And in some months of the year, response is almost impossible.

That is a point that was certainly made by Nuka analysts in an earlier report for the Haisla Nation on the Enbridge bid. The study laid out conditions that would prevent any type of spill response, scenarios that included wave heights that are often found in the waters of Dixon Entrance – the same waters that tankers would transit under the Gateway proposition.

In its latest report, Nuka says: "Even when wind and waves are moderate enough that on-water containment and recovery equipment can be deployed, other conditions may preclude a response. Fog, clouds and darkness, as well as temperature and strong currents can also limit a response."

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And fog along the northern B.C. coast is common.

Given the vagaries of environmental conditions around the world, it's little surprise that some areas especially sensitive to the impacts of a spill have been deemed off limits to tanker traffic by governments. My guess is that the Dixon Entrance, and the waters off the Great Bear Rainforest, will ultimately be identified as an area to be avoided by oil tankers because of the many uncertainties the location poses for oil-spill response.

The risk is simply too big.

Still, the Nuka report does articulate a plan that could clear the way to pipeline development in the province. It would take massive resources and extraordinary willpower, but it could be done.

But in B.C., even the greatest oil-recovery plan in the world will be met with suspicion and resistance. That will never change.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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