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New and Improved Oil Spills!

03/20/2013 05:38 EDT | Updated 05/20/2013 05:12 EDT
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CUSHING, OK - MARCH 22: Pipe is stacked at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 22, 2012 in Cushing, Oklahoma. U.S. President Barack Obama is pressing federal agencies to expedite the section of the Keystone XL pipeline between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Harper’s public relations and spin team hit Vancouver last week to unveil their super-duper enviro-protection plan for pipelines and tankers. Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Minister of Transport Denis Lebel described their new regime for oil spill safety against the backdrop of the Port of Vancouver. On CTV Power Play, Oliver went so far as to say the Exxon Valdez spill could never happen in Canada. What should no longer surprise me is how little was unveiled.

In March of last year, Budget 2012 promised more pipeline inspections and new tanker regulations. Then ministers claimed the new measures were in the budget omnibus bill C-38. Since C-38 was over 400 pages long, perhaps they did not expect anyone to read it. Maybe they never read it themselves, as Minister Oliver trumpeted then, “Mr. Speaker, the bill will do a great deal to protect the environment... As I mentioned in my remarks, tankers will have to be double-hulled, there will be mandatory pilotage, there will be enhanced navigation, there will be aerial surveillance and additional measures will be taken in particular cases when necessary.”

None of this was in C-38. It is, in fact, what he announced in Vancouver on March 18, 2013. I imagine he wondered why he had such a strong sense of déjà-vu.

The only really new announcement was of an expert panel to review tanker safety and to study the specific risks of a spill involving bitumen and diluents. That is worth doing, as the entire Enbridge Joint Review Panel hearing has been dealing with a product it does not plan to ship -- crude.

Yesterday Harper’s ministers announced we would find these new measures in Bill C-57, the just tabled for First Reading Safeguarding Canada’s Seas and Skies Act. I have read C-57. This now takes top honours in the on-going competition for most over-hyped legislative title. I have read it and it is essentially a housekeeping act. It deals with the skies, through changes to inspections of aviation accidents and aeronautic indemnities. There is no environmental aspect to the “skies” component. Then there are the amendments related to “seas.” The Marine Act is amended to change the date for the approval of a new director of a port authority. The only oil-spill related components are in the Marine Liability Act. The act is brought into compliance with the 2010 International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in connection with the Carriage and Noxious Substances by Sea. So, nothing about double-hulled tankers.

The reality is that since 1993, all new tankers are required, by international agreement, to be double-hulled. According to a great summary on the issue by Mitch Anderson in September 27, 2010 The Tyee, (“No, Double Hull Tankers Do Not Ensure ‘Total Safety,’”) there were only 50 single-hulled tankers operating anywhere on the planet that year. None were allowed in North American waters.

Has the virtual removal of single-hulled tankers ended the risk of oil spills? Not actually. Despite the exuberance of Joe Oliver’s rhetoric, double-hulls possess no magical powers. Their use has not ended the risk of accidents and oil spills.

Collisions with barges and freighters have caused oil spills of millions of litres in ports around the world. Double hulls can be sliced open and oil spills out.

The Transport Canada website was prettied up for the announcement, with a “fact sheet” transparently designed to create the impression the British Columbia coast is routinely plied by hundreds of super-tankers.

Here are some of the claims from the Transport Canada website:

  • Oil tankers have been moving safely and regularly along Canada’s West Coast since the 1930’s.
  • In 2009-2010, there were about 1500 tanker movements on the West Coast....
  • A federal moratorium off the coast of BC applies strictly to oil and natural gas exploitation and development, not to tanker storage or movement.

I think most readers will not need any help from me debunking that bunk. The 1972 moratorium was precisely against oil tanker traffic along BC’s north coast. Moreover, the 1500 tanker “movements” refers to what Transport Canada defines as “every time a ship (or vessel) commences or ceases to be underway.

Underway is defined as "a vessel that is not at anchor, or made fast to the shore, or aground.” And by tanker, they mean “a cargo ship fitted with tanks for carrying liquid in bulk.” Not oil tankers. In 2011, the total number of oil tankers in and out of the Port of Vancouver was 82. None of them were super-tankers and none of them operate without risk.

In the on-going war of words to get super-tankers carrying bitumen crude into our waters, it is amazing any media covered Joe Oliver’s announcement as if anything meaningful had been added to the discussion.

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This article appears in the March 28 print and online editions of Island Tides