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One Tanker Adrift Does Not a Crisis Make

10/29/2014 01:19 EDT | Updated 12/29/2014 05:59 EST

The Simushir, a Russian-flagged cargo vessel is the newest cause celebre of anti-tanker activists out in British Columbia.

Liberal MP Joyce Murray and NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen are waving distress flags over what they portray as a near-disaster that reveals systemic faults in Canada's shipping-safety regime. Simushir, which lost power on October 17, drifted for three days off the coast of B.C. while waiting for sufficient tug power to reach the ship to bring it to port. The ship reportedly contained some 400 tons of bunker oil, and 50 tons of diesel fuel.

Nobody takes the idea of oil contamination lightly, nor have they since the days of the Exxon Valdez. But one accident does not make a systemic failure. In fact, the record of transporting oil by water is an overwhelmingly positive one. As the non-profit International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation observes, tanker accidents and spills have decreased significantly over time, even as shipments of oil have increased dramatically.

The data are pretty clear: There were an average of 24.5 (large) spills per year in the 1970s, down to 9.4 spills in the 1980s, about 8 spills in the 1990s, 3.5 spills in the first decade of the 21st century, and down to 2 spills, on average, for the years from 2010-2013. Medium-sized spills have also plummeted over time. Of all the oil spilled at sea from 1970 to 2009, 56 percent was spilled in the 1970s, 20 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, and only 3.7 per cent in the 2000s. Canada has had zero spills at sea since 2000.

At the same time, since 1985, seaborne oil trade has nearly doubled, from around 5,000 billion ton-miles in 1985, to nearly 10,000 billion ton-miles in 2012.

There's no question that we need to be cautious with Canada's marine environment. And plans are already in place to increase marine safety in association with planned developments such as the Northern Gateway pipeline. The Enbridge plan for the Northern Gateway project, calls for improving coastal radar and navigation aids; the use of only certified double-hull tankers; guiding every tanker to and from open water using two high-powered tugboats capable of fire-fighting and spill containment; using only Canadian pilots familiar with the local seas; pre-positioning emergency response equipment and personnel at key points along the shipping routes, and more.

The Simushir incident is being used to portray a marine-safety environment that is systemically dysfunctional. And there's no doubt that it revealed some weaknesses in Canada's spill-response capability, weaknesses acknowledged by, and being addressed by B.C.'s environment minister.

But data on decreasing accidents at increased shipment levels suggest that Simushir is not an icon of systemic failure. Despite intense weather conditions, the Canadian Coast Guard reached the Simushir in about 14 hours in international waters, was able to move the ship away from the Haida Gwaii marine reserve, and kept it away until a tug could bring it safely to harbor. There may have been some luck involved with regard to the location of that tug, and the Coast Guard's difficulties in towing it may suggest a need for better towing capabilities, but when push comes to shove, the marine-safety regime did what it was supposed to do, and rescued a drifting ship.

There's no reason to assume that Canada cannot maintain its great safety record of the last decade as we move forward to export Canadian oil to foreign markets. Rather, the better assumption is that newer technologies and upgraded safety planning will only make things safer.