PRINCE RUPERT, B.C. - The B.C. government says its support for the Northern Gateway pipeline is partly contingent upon a world-class oil spill response plan, but the federal review panel weighing the project has heard what constitutes "world-class" is open to a great deal of interpretation.

The panel heard Tuesday that Enbridge (TSX:ENB) has committed to a world-class response plan.

The project exceeds standards simply because it has taken extended responsibility beyond the pipeline and tanker terminal, testified Ed Owens, a project consultant from Polaris Applied Sciences and one of 10 company experts being questioned under oath this week on marine oil spills.

"In reality, there is no standard, there is no number against which one can compare. International best practices are a combination of a number of things — not just equipment, not just how much boom, how many pumps you have — but how do you design the overall system," Owens said under questioning by lawyers for the B.C. government.

"This is not an area that would typically be a responsibility of the project. This is a pipeline and a marine terminal project and typically their responsibility as soon as the vessel leaves the dock... that becomes a shipping responsibility," Owens said.

"This does exceed, basically, what anybody else has ever tried to do."

Even an agreement on world-standard response times and clean-up capacity eluded the panel.

Northern Gateway has committed to a capacity to contain 36,000 cubic metres, or 32,000 tonnes, of oil within 10 days of a spill. Canadian regulations require a capacity of 10,000 tonnes.

Alaska, in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, requires a capacity to clean-up 47,700 cubic metres within 72 hours.

But the two cannot be compared, experts said. The type of skimmers, emulsifying of the oil in the water, the weather — all affect the response, the review panel was told.

It's "apples and oranges," Owens said.

Trying to eliminate the differences — even between Prince William Sound, where Exxon Valdez dumped 41,600 cubic metres of oil into the Pacific, and the north coast of B.C. — is really challenging, said Owen McHugh, another expert on the company panel.

"I'd like to remind you that we are operating in Canada, under Canadian jurisdiction, and the Canadian laws are for 10,000 tonnes within a very different model than what we're proposing," McHugh said.

"We're proposing a similar style of response to a lot of other areas around the world, where we're planning on having major equipment on site to be able to deal with an incident."

That is part of the problem, said the Sierra Club, citing a report issued Tuesday by the federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development.

Regulations are not adequate to deal with major oil spills or an expected 300-per-cent increase in tanker traffic off the West Coast, the report said

Paul Stanway, spokesman for Northern Gateway Pipelines, said that's an issue the company recognized from the outset, and that's why the project includes offshore emergency response.

"With or without the Gateway project, we're going to see vastly increased vessel traffic on the north coast, and we need to be prepared for that," Stanway said Tuesday.

"This is not just about Gateway.... There is a need to address this issue."

B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake agreed.

While Northern Gateway has said it will go above and beyond the regulatory requirements, it shouldn't be up to individual companies to do so, said Lake, who attended the hearing on Tuesday.

"We don't want a voluntary system. We want a regulated, legislated system that assures British Columbians that we have the best system available in the world to minimize risk and respond to any incidents," Lake said.

B.C. has launched a review of land-based spill regulations.

"And we've been urging the federal government to do the same thing on the marine environment because, of course, British Columbians are very concerned about their coastline yet we don't have the regulatory ability to ensure that it is protected," Lake said.

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