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The Government's Oil Spill Plans Are a Bit Too Slick

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The federal government's recently stated intention to establish a "world-class oil spill response and prevention" plan is clearly designed to assuage public fears in British Columbia over the dramatic increase in oil tanker traffic that would accompany the Enbridge Northern Gateway project and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's announcement, however, does little to diminish the risk or change the nature of shipping oil on the B.C. coast. The reality is that human nature and physical nature are the forces that produce tragedies at sea. Unforeseen events that inevitably occur in narrow channels, high-traffic corridors and bad weather increase the risk of oil tanker accidents on B.C.'s coast. Major oil spills show that despite assurances of low risk and advanced technology, poor decisions still lead to major incidents. Groundings, collisions, equipment failures and explosions are all cited as causes for accidents, but these are consequences, not causes. Root causes of incidents are more insidious, with human error, cost-cutting and miscommunication foremost among them.

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Lost in all the minister's warm and fuzzy rhetoric about increased tanker inspections, tanker safety panels and new navigational aids is the fact that human failures account for up to 80 per cent of the world's oil spills. Underscoring the fact there is no accounting for human error, B.C.'s largest oil spill response vessel ran aground en route to Oliver's news conference last month.

The federal government's public relations exercise does, however, speak to timing. It occurs before the conclusion of the federal review process for Northern Gateway, immediately precedes the 24th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster and coincides with the launch of a provincial election in which pipelines and oil tankers are certain to figure prominently in the outcome of the campaign.

Oliver's announcement is viewed by many as nothing more than empty pandering to the legitimate concerns of British Columbians as the phrase "world-class oil spill response and prevention" is a meaningless platitude. There is no such thing as world-class oil spill response and prevention. The existing yardstick is wholly inadequate as estimates of open-water recovery by mechanical equipment recover only 10 to 15 per cent of the oil from a marine spill at best.

As we have learned from previous spills, no response is possible in rough weather, high seas and dangerous conditions. Importantly, these conditions often precede, or follow, oil spills. Pumping and skimming recovery options are impossible in over one knot of tide or in waves over two to three metres. In rough conditions or offshore spills, response is limited to the use of dispersants, as containment is not an option. Dispersants have proven to be largely unsuccessful on water-in-oil emulsions and on oil that has weathered, and will not likely be successful on bitumen. Furthermore, reliable knowledge regarding the extent of dispersant toxicity is lacking.

With grossly overstated oil spill response capabilities revealed after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, it was evident that improvements to oil spill technology have been negligible. Responders in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill indicated that cleanup technology was no further ahead than in the 15 years previous. Responders in the Deepwater Horizon spill claimed that cleanup technologies were essentially the same as in the Exxon Valdez spill. Thus, despite some minor improvements, oil spill recovery remains largely unchanged in the last 35 years. Importantly, the spill response in these situations was nothing like what had been promised by the oil companies.

The Canadian coast guard has also identified uncertainty around the effectiveness of spill recovery with the products that Enbridge plans to transport. In its submission to the joint review panel assessing Northern Gateway, the coast guard stated it was "not aware of a scientific consensus regarding how these products will behave once introduced into the marine environment or the effects over time of the products being in the water. The Canadian coast guard therefore is uncertain whether or not traditional oil spill recovery methods would be effective."

The coast guard's fear that bitumen could submerge or sink has recently been reinforced by top Canadian and U.S. chemical scientists. But this would not be the only impact of a diluted bitumen spill. If a slick hits the water, it would immediately release dangerous components that are acutely toxic to fish and animals. Currently, no technology can recover those volatile diluents. The bottom line on the B.C. coast, as has been shown elsewhere, is that having the ability to respond does not necessarily translate into effective cleanup of an oil spill.

This article was co-authored by biologist Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program director for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

A version of this article previously ran in the Toronto Star.