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A spill response boat secures a boom around the bulk carrier cargo ship MV Marathassa after a bunker fuel spill on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on April 9, 2015. A ship that leaked more than 2,700 litres of bunker fuel into the waters off Vancouver almost two weeks ago will soon be given the go-ahead to dock at Vancouver's port. The Coast Guard says it has completed its decontamination of the MV Marathassa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl DyckDARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The bunker-fuel spill this month of at least 2,800 litres – from the grain ship MV Marathassa, in English Bay, Vancouver – was small and localized. But it revealed big deficiencies on the part of the Coast Guard – and raised legitimate doubts about how well a large oil spill would be handled.

B.C.'s coastal waters could soon be home to a growing number of oil tankers. The TransMountain project of Kinder Morgan Inc., if approved and built, would move great quantities of diluted bitumen to Burnaby, to be loaded into double-hulled tankers, up to 120,000 tonnes per vessel. Currently, about 50 oil tankers a year depart from Port Metro Vancouver. If TransMountain goes ahead, that number could rise to as many as 400.

Enbridge Inc.'s proposed Northern Gateway project would create a comparably busy route, in a far more isolated region – shipping oil from Kitimat through the narrow, often rough waters of the Douglas Channel.

The Marathassa spill has raised significant questions about the Coast Guard, its reduced staff, its communications with other agencies and the closing two years ago of its Kitsilano station in Vancouver. These federal budget cuts may have been false economies.

It's true that a spill such as the Marathassa's would not have much in common with that of a big, bitumen-bearing tanker.

An accident with a large tanker is far less likely to occur than one with a small vessel sailing under a flag of convenience (Cyprus, in this instance). But though a spill involving a strongly built tanker is an extremely low probability, if it happened it could be catastrophic – whether in the heavily populated Lower Mainland or in a more pristine environment such as the Kitimat-Stikine region.

One common factor, however, is the federal government, which supports both Northern Gateway and TransMountain. Canada produces enough oil that it must export some, even when oil is near the bottom of its price cycle. But if Ottawa cannot demonstrate committment and competency in handling a small oil spill, Canadians may end up doubting its ability to handle a large one.

This is not just about the Conservatives. The federal election is only six months away. All of the parties should put their minds to the question of how to support the necessary export of this country's natural resources – without environmental disasters.