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."

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Top 5 Provincial Resource Spats

    Before the $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline contract is even inked, not to mention approved by a federal panel, a heated quarrel has erupted between Alberta and British Columbia about divvying up the revenues.<br><br>It's not the first time in Canada that resources have spurred disputes between neighbouring provinces. And it likely won't be the last.<br><br>Here's a look at just a few examples of provincial spats, including the Alberta-B.C. one, over issues ranging from human to energy resources.<br><br> <em>With files from CBC</em>

  • Northern Gateway Pipeline

    Alberta vs. British Columbia<br><br>In the dispute over the proposed Enbridge pipeline, B.C. is calling for a share in the project's revenue to compensate it for the potential environmental risks inherent in running a crude oil pipeline across its land. Alberta has refused to share royalties, citing a province's right to income from natural resources within its own borders.<br><br>The proposal involves two pipelines, stretching a combined 1,177-kilometres, that would carry 525,000 barrels of oil per day from the Alberta oilsands to the ports on the West Coast. Enbridge has estimated that public benefits would amount to $2.6 billion in local, provincial and federal tax revenues over 30 years of operation. Environmental groups and aboriginal communities have opposed the proposed pipeline, particularly over worries of an oil spill.

  • Upper Churchill Falls Hydro Project

    Newfoundland vs. Quebec<br><br>Perhaps the most famous inter-provincial skirmish is the Upper Churchill Falls hydroelectric project. It's a battle that has raged between Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador for more than half a century.<br><br>In 1969, Churchill Falls Labrador Corp. signed a deal with Hydro-Quebec that secured the creation of a power corridor through Quebec, enabling access to outside markets. In return, Newfoundland and Labrador agreed to sell a large portion of the electricity at a fixed rate until 2041 to Hydro-Quebec, the provincially owned utility.<br><br>The 65-year agreement did not account for inflation, nor the drastic rise in energy prices that was to come. Hydro-Quebec benefitted from the cheap price, profiting as it sold on the electricity to the U.S. and refused repeatedly to renegotiate the contract.<br><br>A 1996 report by Maclean's magazine found Newfoundland received $20 million a year by selling power to Hydro-Quebec, but the utility earned $800 million annually by selling that same power to hungry U.S. markets along the eastern seabord.<br><br>Since the 1970s, Newfoundland and Labrador has repeatedly tried to challenge the contract, seeking help from the federal government to the Supreme Court.

  • Construction Workers

    Ontario vs. Quebec<br><br>In the late 1970s, Ontario and Quebec began a tit-for-tat dispute over construction workers crossing the border to work in each other's province.<br><br>Dubbed the Ontario-Quebec Construction War in some newspaper accounts, the tiff appears to have started when Quebec enacted restrictions in 1978 effectively barring Ontario construction workers from certain projects there. Ontario sought to retaliate with similar rules. Thus began a political dispute that lasted decades, flare-ups often fuelled by economic downturns.<br><br>Quebec's highly-regulated construction industry has historically deterred Ontario workers wanting to work in Quebec -- while also driving Quebec workers into the more open Ontario.<br><br>Frustrated by the flow of workers into Ontario, Ontario enacted a Fairness is a Two-Way Street Act in 1999, barring Quebec construction workers from Ontario government projects. The two provinces eventually settled their differences in 2006 with a construction mobility agreement.

  • Timber Dispute

    Ontario vs. Manitoba<br><br>In Canada's early days, as boundaries were still being carved out, Ontario and Manitoba clashed for years over a tract of land on the western and northern boundaries of Ontario that each claimed as its own. An 1883 New York Times article described "frequent disgraceful conflicts" that "stopped short of bloodshed."<br><br>The tract was rich in timber and minerals, and also contained a port on Lake Superior.<br><br>In 1880, Manitoba extended its boundaries, with the federal government confirming them the next year.<br><br>But Ontario did not agree, saying the extension gave the disputed area to Manitoba. Confusion reigned in the disputed area as it lacked not only civil courts and a registry office to record deeds, but a timber agent to protect the forest. The U.K. judicial committee of the Privy Council finally weighed in. In 1889, the boundary of Ontario was extended west of Lake of the Woods and north to Albany River.

  • National Energy Program

    Alberta vs. Ottawa (and Ontario and Quebec)<br><br>In the wake of the energy crisis in the late-1970s, when the OPEC nations raised the price of oil, the Trudeau government introduced the National Energy Program, basically to equalize the price of oil in Canada and offset higher prices being paid the central and Atlantic provinces.<br><br>Highly unpopular in Western Canada, particularly in Alberta where most of Canada's oil is produced, the NEP sought to increase the federal share of energy revenues and make Canada a self-sufficient oil producer. Alberta viewed the program as an intrusion into provincial control over natural resources, as set out in the British North America Act, then the country's constitution.<br><br>Peter Lougheed, the Alberta premier at the time, retaliated against Ottawa by cutting provincial oil production. The fight caused huge uncertainty in the oil patch and essentially pitted the Western province against Eastern Canada. Lougheed said the federal government effectively "weighed Alberta's needs for markets against the economic advantages to Eastern Canada, and decided against us."<br><br>Eventually Lougheed and Trudeau signed a revised energy agreement in 1981, whch rejigged the revenue-sharing arrangement and reduced the NEP export tax on Alberta.<br><br>In 1982, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Ottawa couldn't legally tax provincially owned oil and gas wells and the last vestiges of the controversial program were scrapped after Conservative Brian Mulroney was elected in 1984.