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Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Natural Resources Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver discuss an oil-tanker safety report in Vancouver Tuesday.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The federal government has major gaps to fill to keep its promise to establish a world-class safety system for oil supertankers plying Canadian waters off the coast of British Columbia, an expert panel reports.

Ottawa established the panel to recommend safety enhancements as part of its effort to win support from the B.C. government and First Nations for crude oil pipelines and tanker ports that would give the oil industry access to Asian markets.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver released the report with its 45 recommendations in Vancouver on Tuesday.

"We will act on the advice from the panel and will work to create a world-class tanker safety system here in Canada," Ms. Raitt said.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has said she would not support Enbridge Inc.'s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline unless she is satisfied on five conditions, including world-leading environmental protection and spill response. But Canada still has a ways to go on that score, according to the panel, which was chaired by Captain Gordon Houston, the former president of the Port of Vancouver.

"Generally, we found that the foundational principles of the regime have stood the test of time, but that there are a number of areas that could be improved to enhance Canada's preparedness and response to ship-source oil spills," the report said.

The panel recommended that the government do a better job of assessing the risk of spills in specific areas, and ensuring that polluters will pay for any cleanup. And it said Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard need substantial additional resources to enforce regulations and to oversee response preparedness.

The government announced last summer a series of measures aimed at strengthening the safety system. They include increasing inspections for tankers, expanding the aerial surveillance of ships and upgrading Canada's navigational aids.

Mr. Oliver said it is essential that Canada find new export markets for its oil and natural gas resources since booming production of both oil and gas in the United States is cutting deeply into producers' traditional market there. But he insisted the effort to build new transportation links would be done responsibly. "No project will proceed unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment," he said.

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said the report adds a helpful perspective to B.C. work in this area. "I have a high degree of confidence that they are serious about achieving the goals that we have in front of us and serious about the safety of our coast and the transportation of tankers up and down our coastline. I leave it to them as to their processes, but I have a high degree of confidence in their intention to achieve what we have as objectives in front of us."

Ms. Polak said Ottawa has been very co-operative with B.C.

New Democratic Party MP Peter Julian said the Conservative government has cut back on some key safety operations on the West Coast, including coast guard stations, and has "no credibility when it comes to preventing oil spills."

Aboriginal communities heard nothing Tuesday to soften their opposition to Northern Gateway pipeline, said Art Sterritt, executive director of the umbrella group, Coastal First Nations. He said the review panel noted serious deficiencies in Canada's tanker safety regime, while it focused on spill response rather than prevention.

"They're looking at response and there is no response," he said. "There is no technology [to clean up a major spill]. It doesn't exist. So this would be a disaster waiting to happen."

The environmental group Living Oceans applauded the panel's recommendations but said the report was silent on the fact that it will take hundreds of millions of dollars and many years to put the system in place.

"The government cannot legislate safety at the stroke of a pen," said Karen Wristen, executive director at Living Oceans.

"The hard work – identifying sensitive resources that need protecting; finding safe places for ships to weather a storm; installing and testing a whole new system of navigation – has simply not been done. To suggest that we can move ahead with massive increases in tanker traffic without these precautions is foolhardy."

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