VANCOUVER - If Enbridge (TSX:ENB) and the Alberta government get their way, an additional 500 tankers could be coming in and out of northern B.C. each year, with each departing ship carrying millions of litres of oil destined for foreign markets.
As each double-hulled tanker makes it way through the Douglas Channel near Kitimat, a tethered tug boat would help keep the massive ship on course. A marine pilot trained on local waters would make sure the vessel navigates safely through the water.
But what if the unexpected happens? What if the giant vessel hits a rock along B.C.'s coast line, and oil begins to seep into the water? Who springs into action first? Who takes on the cleanup, and who is responsible for making sure it is done properly?
Despite the controversy around the pipeline and the questions raised by the B.C. government and environmentalists about safety and liability, the nuts-and-bolts process of who does what is relatively clear.
Right away, first responders on the tug boats would rush to contain the spill. The tanker company — the polluter that is financially responsible for the mess — must immediately notify the Canadian Coast Guard, or the province's emergency line.
A call would also be made to a federally-certified spill response organization, which would come to handle the crisis.
In B.C.'s case, that organization is the Western Canada Marine Response Organization. It dispatches vessels to the spill within hours and contains it using a variety of booms, skimmers, suction pumps and absorbent pads.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard would arrive on the scene to supervise the clean-up. Under Canadian regulations, the spill is supposed to be contained within 10 days.
If the polluter's response is deemed inadequate or negligent, the Coast Guard will switch from supervising the response to directly cleaning up the spill.
Bruce Turnbull, with the Western Canada Marine Response Organization, said stormy weather conditions could delay response time, which is typically between six to 72 hours.
"You think six hours (seems like a lot), but we don't drive there, we don't fly there, we have to be on the water and water speed isn't that great," he said.
Turnbull said resources — including a high-speed response skimmer — and personnel will be moved closer to the Douglas Channel to match the level of perceived risk if the Northern Gateway project gets approved.
But history has shown that despite protocol, a significant marine spill — such as the one that many environmentals and aboriginal groups say could happen on the West Coast if the controversial $6-billion Northern Gateway project gets approved — often doesn't go according to the best-laid plans.
Protocol doesn't take into account human error.
Just last week, roughly 190,000 litres of crude spilled from Enbridge's pipeline in rural Wisconsin, causing the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to demand the oil giant submit a re-start plan before it can reopen the pipeline.
The administration questioned the company's pipeline integrity program, noting tests performed during the pipeline's construction in 1998 revealed defects and that the pipeline had also ruptured five years ago, spilling more than 200,000 litres of crude in Clark County, NV.
And in 2010, millions of litres of oil sand crude poured into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan state, affecting more than 50 kilometres of waterways and wetlands.
A recent report by U.S. investigators likened Calgary-based Enbridge to the "Keystone Kops" because it had botched the Michigan spill response.
The report revealed that employees responded poorly when the pipeline ruptured, and that they did not fix a defect that was discovered five years earlier.
The Kalamazoo River was only recently opened up again, and the clean-up cost Enbridge $800-million.
Since the incident, the oil company has said it has made many changes, including doubling the number of employees to detect pipeline leaks, increasing technical training and improving the company's safety culture.
"The key aspect in terms of avoiding human error would be to start with the philosophy of the company, and that would be no spill is acceptable and we must do all we can to ensure there won't be a spill," John Carruthers, president of the Northern Gateway project, said in an interview.
The Northern Gateway project, currently before a federal review panel, would carry tar sand oil — crude that contains diluted bitumen — from Alberta to northern B.C., where it would be shipped to Asia.
Enbridge said late last month it would invest a further $500-million in boosting the safety of the proposed pipeline.
Former fisheries minister David Anderson said he isn't convinced the company has learned its lesson from the Michigan spill.
"If this is the record of this company which had led it to be described in the most critical terms by [the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board], then you just can't have the expectation they're going to do well somewhere else," he said.
Anderson also said the recent wave of federal budget cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans means the Coast Guard has little capacity to deal with a massive oil spill on the West Coast.
"You can always say we can do habitat protection, or we can do this oil spill response, or we can enforce fishing regulations on rivers," he said. "You can do one of these things, but you can't do all three because you don't have the resources to do it."
Canada's liability rules means a spiller may not have to spend more than $1.3 billion cleaning up a marine disaster. The rest of the costs could fall to the province and Ottawa.
That has helped prompt B.C. Premier Christy Clark to insist Ottawa underwrite more of the financial liability of cleanup and to require B.C. get a bigger share of the profits from the line to compensate for the increased risk the province may take on.
Edward Owens, a geologist and shoreline protection consultant with Enbridge, said the project's spill management plan will be "state-of-the-art."
According to Canadian shipping regulations, Enbridge's liability should end as soon as the oil is transferred from the Northern Gateway pipeline to the tanker, he said.
However, Enbridge is extending its spill response strategy to also cover the open water area.
Owens said a tanker will be tethered to a tug boat at all times to keep it on course, while a vessel with spill response equipment would accompany the ship as well.
An equipment depot with three-times the capacity required by Transport Canada is already located in Kitimat, and more depots will be stationed at Prince Rupert, Hartley Bay and other areas along the Douglas Channel, he said.
But Owens acknowledged that regardless of a world-class plan, adverse weather conditions, miscommunication and poor management can delay a spill response.
"I've seen all those mistakes," he said.
"There's no one formula for success. The key is to have everything in place that you can have."