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New federal oil spill plan announced but enviros not impressed

More tanker inspections, additional ship surveillance and new legislation to strengthen pollution prevention and response were part of a $120 million oil tanker safety system overhaul announced by the federal government Monday as oil companies and Ottawa continue to position themselves as global oil producers.

Natural Resources minister Joe Oliver and Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Denis Lebel made the announcement while standing alongside the busy Port of Vancouver Monday afternoon.

“Our current system of marine safeguards has served us well for many years,” said Lebel. “Now, with trade expected to grow significantly in the coming years, we must enhance this system to keep our waters clean.”

 In a speech that repeated the phrase “world-class” seven times, Lebel announced new legislation has been tabled in Parliament, the Safeguarding Canada’s Seas and Skies Act, to “strengthen the current requirements for pollution prevention and response” and “enhance response to oil spill incidents”.  Eight new measures were also announced to improve tanker safety. Those include more tanker inspections, a system of ship surveillance and monitoring and improved marine aids such as “buoys, lights and other devices”. (For a complete list and further background, see the government website.)

Lebel also announced a new Tanker Safety Expert Panel to review Canada's current tanker safety system.

 “The Panel will review our current preparedness and response capacity,” said Lebel. “It will propose new ways to bring Canada's safety system to world-class status.  It will consult widely. And it will engage and work with aboriginal groups. “

The new measures come after the Christy Clark government made it clear that a high oil-spill response standard is one of the five conditions that must be met before BC will consider additional tankers on the coast. The BC government is facing growing hostility from British Columbians over proposals for two major Alberta oil pipelines to the coast; the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project to Kitimat and the doubling of a Kinder Morgan pipeline to Burnaby.

"What we are announcing today is a result of listening to British Columbians and responding to their concerns," said Joe Oliver.

 Oliver, however, wasn’t listening to the David Suzuki Foundation. A spokesman for the Foundation says they were not involved in any discussions with Ottawa about the new measures, Act or expert panel.  Suzuki Foundation Science Project Manager Bill Wareham says on face value the announcement appears positive, but the fact still remains that more ships mean more risk.

“The problem overall is that it really doesn’t do anything to reduce the risk. If we increase the number of tankers on the BC coast ... it’s increasing the risk”, says Wareham. 

“Whether it’s weather, human error or mechanical failure, inevitably you will have an accident that won’t have anything to do with whether or not there are regulations for safety and oil spill clean-up.”

The Georgia Strait Alliance (GSA) is also wary of the announcements. While it welcomes the new measures, GSA Energy and Shipping Campaigner Alexandra Woodsworth agrees with the Suzuki Foundation that the new measures do little to address a growing risk facing the marine environment.

“When we’re talking about spill response, we must realize we are actually talking about the best case scenario, which is 25 percent recovery and ... we’re leaving 75 to 90 percent of the oil that is spilled in the environment, and that is something we need to think about. Are we willing to take that risk when we are looking at these proposals for increased pipelines and tankers?”

Other environmental groups are also upset.

“People in BC are very worried about the massive increase in risk that we’d be exposed to if these two pipelines go ahead,” said Eoin Madden, the Wilderness Committee’s Climate Change Campaigner. “To say that a few extra flights and some inspections of older vessels will increase tanker safety is an insult to British Columbians who care about protecting our coast.”

Both the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan projects would increase the number of ships plying the BC coast substantially. Current National Energy Board hearings into the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project have heard hundreds of residents and environmental groups express concern about the effect of an oil spill on the marine environment. Many point to the long term impact of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 25 years ago this upcoming Sunday.

 “You’re talking about a huge escalation from approximately 70 tankers up to 500”, said Wareham.

Wareham says the push to overhaul regulations and implement safety standards is coming at the expense of more appropriate and reasonable uses of Canada’s energy supply.

“We are questioning whether the increase in prosperity that Canada might get is really worth that risk. Or should we find other ways to use our oil and develop our energy requirements through alternative energies and reduce that risk to the marine environment.”

Canada’s federal government says shipping has always been part of the national economic fabric. Plans to safeguard the environment won’t change as the world comes knocking on Canada’s door, looking for oil.

"As a trading nation, Canada depends on marine shipping for economic growth, jobs and long-term prosperity," said Minister Oliver. "There will be no pipeline development without rigorous environmental protection measures and the tanker safety initiatives we are announcing today are an important aspect of our plan for Responsible Resource Development."






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