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How the Trudeau government plans to mix oil and water

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in Vancouver an Oceans Protection Plan, which might be more simply called a program to minimize harm from tankers anywhere near Canada's coasts. It was a good place to do it, where many people are justifiably worried about tankers passing through the Burrard Inlet and far beyond.

Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna filled in for him in St. John's and Halifax.

The exact extent of the nautical sphere of influence, in various directions – west, north and east – that Canada will take an interest in remains to be seen.

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The plan will spend $1.5-billion over five years, starting in 2017-2018 – what happens after 2022 isn't yet clear.

Its best element is that it promises to strengthen the principle that the polluter pays. There is already a Canadian Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund, but the new plan says it will make sure there is enough industry-funded compensation – i.e., insurance coverage – to help those who are harmed by oil spills, and to act quickly.

The plan promises to make the Canadian Coast Guard more active and to make sure there are "uninterrupted communications with mariners" as a way of preventing and addressing spills.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Trudeau's plan contains a number of references to indigenous communities on the country's various coasts – to open up employment opportunities, but also to draw on their existing knowledge of regions where there are difficult waters.

The new policy is being rolled out because Canada needs to be able to export its oil and gas. But unless provincial and federal governments, and above all the industry, demonstrate that they are taking steps to both prevent and prepare for accidents, there will be overwhelming opposition.

And the cost burden for doing so should primarily fall on the industry. A company whose operations carry the risks of a spill must be adequately insured to compensate those who would be harmed. The polluter, not the taxpayer, should pay.

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