But many of the substantial recommendations in the reports have languished, despite pressure on Ottawa to deal with concerns over a potential increase in oil tanker traffic off the British Columbia coast.
Two 2010 audits "each found a number of significant deficiencies in the program's preparedness capability, and questioned the capacity of the (Canadian Coast Guard) to respond to a significant marine pollution event," said a March 2012 draft report for the federal Fisheries department.
In particular, the report, obtained by The Canadian Press using Access to Information, found that about 83 per cent of the oil spill response equipment across the country is ready to use, but most of it is outdated.
"Although operationally ready to respond, most of the assets held by the (emergency response) program average 25 or more years in service and have either become obsolete or are coming to the end of their useful life," said the report of the Environmental Response Capacity Definition Project.
"Maintenance is increasingly difficult as technical support and availability of parts are compromised."
Last week, the British Columbia government came out formally opposed to Enbridge's (TSX:ENB) proposed Northern Gateway project, saying the project didn't address its concerns, including those involving a potential marine oil spill.
In Canada, polluters are legally required to pay for clean-up, and the shipping industry funds the Canadian Marine Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime. The Coast Guard oversees clean-up, and maintains its own capacity for oil spill response.
But the lack of dedicated funding has meant the Coast Guard has not been able to "properly life-cycle" equipment, the authors found.
"This has eroded response capacities and has raised questions on the current condition and overall effectiveness of (Canadian Coast Guard)'s response equipment," said the report.
The B.C. government has estimated the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would deliver oilsands products to a tanker port in Kitimat, B.C., for export to Asian markets, and Kinder Morgan's proposed expansion of its existing TransMountain pipeline into the Port of Metro Vancouver, could increase tanker traffic by more than 1,000 annually off the Pacific coast.
The largest of the vessels, VLCC tankers, can carry up to 200,000 deadweight tonnes of oil.
Canadian regulations require shipping companies, who bear responsibility for responding to an incident, to have the capacity to clean up 10,000 tonnes of oil. Federal briefing notes claim the Canadian Coast Guard has a pollution response capacity in the Pacific region of 8,000 tonnes.
But the audit found that number is substantially less. The national capacity, in reality, is slightly less than 6,900 tonnes due to storage limitations in all regions, the report said.
The authors of the report had difficulty even finding out what the capacity was across the country, as there is no national co-ordinator or national inventory, and records collected from region to region varied from paper to obsolete electronic documents.
The report said that as an organization, the Coast Guard has not even defined an appropriate level of response capacity to meet its mandate.
Ivan Giesbrecht, spokesman for the Enbridge (TSX:ENB), said the Calgary-based company has made commitments beyond those required under Canadian law.
"Our marine spill response plan will improve existing safety and response readiness on British Columbia's coastline. Naturally, this is something we hope can improve confidence and public support for our project," Giesbrecht said in an email response to questions.
Those commitments will become requirements that will be tracked by regulatory agencies, he said.
"The commitments that Northern Gateway has made will not be voluntary after project approval."
In March, Transport Minister Denis Lebel announced a tanker safety expert panel that is to make recommendations on improvements, among other measures aimed at assuaging public concerns in B.C.
The government announced it would also establish a Coast Guard incident command system.
Melanie Carkner, spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans, said in an email that the changes were "the first steps towards the development of a world-class Tanker Safety System for Canadian coasts that will strengthen the safety of Canadians and better protect the environment."
But Will Horter, of the Dogwood Initiative, a vehement opponent of any increase in oil tanker traffic off the B.C. coast, said a spill is inevitable with the amount of tanker traffic that would ply the Pacific coast.
"Even a 'world-class' system doesn't prevent the kind of risks that British Columbians are concerned about," Horter said. "British Columbians would bear the burden."
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