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Michael Smyth: Alarm bells ring with new report of B.C.‘s oil-spill system

Posted Oct 6

By: Michael Smyth, The Province

British Columbia is not prepared for a large coastal oil spill and the spill-prevention-and response system needs a major upgrade, especially before any new oil pipelines are approved.

That will be the bottom line in a new report on the province's oil-spill system to be released this week by the Christy Clark government.

As B.C. debates two major oil-pipeline projects — Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline — the government hired Alaska-based Nuka Research to investigate our coastal-spill system.

The company's report has been received by the government, I'm told, and Clark hinted at its contents in comments last week.

"We are woefully under resourced," Clark said, adding the spill-response system must be improved, especially "before any more heavy oil comes off the coast."

British Columbia already has hundreds of oil tankers passing through coastal waters and this week's report will question whether the spill-response system is adequate even for existing tanker traffic, I'm told.

The report will echo earlier concerns raised about B.C.'s inadequate preparation for a major coastal oil spill.

"Even a moderately sized spill would overwhelm the province's ability to respond and could result in a significant liability for government," said briefing notes prepared in June for B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak and obtained by The Canadian Press.

"The Canadian Coast Guard's national emergency management plan is out of date, and the organization has not fully assessed its response capacity in over a decade," Scott Vaughn, then Canada's independent environment commissioner, said in 2010.

"Because the Coast Guard does not have a reliable system to track spills, it cannot accurately determine the number of spills that occur each year, their size and their environmental impacts.

"We note several areas of concern, from incomplete assessments to out-of-date emergency response plans. These must be addressed to ensure the federal government is ready to respond to any ship-source oil spill occurring in Canadian waters."

The alarm bells are ringing as debate rages over the two proposed pipelines that would pump heavy crude oil — diluted bitumen — from the Alberta oilsands to the B.C. coast for shipment by super tankers to Asia.

Enbridge, the Calgary company behind the proposed $6.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, has launched a new ad campaign touting the environmental safety of the project.

Leaked planning material from the ad blitz includes a "mood board" showing pictures of breaching whales and migrating salmon alongside photos of people and cars.

The proposed text for one commercial compares Enbridge vice-president Janet Holder to an orca, saying they both love "clean oceans and a full life" and both hate oil spills.

An Enbridge official said the material came from an early draft of commercials that were not produced, but convey the company's commitment to preventing a spill.

"What we are saying to the public is that our focus and concern aligns with their focus and concerns: the environment," said Holder, the B.C.-based Enbridge executive in charge of the project.

Premier Christy Clark has laid down five conditions for supporting the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines, including addressing First Nations' concerns, ensuring B.C. gets a "fair share" of the profits and establishing "world-leading" environmental protection standards.

The government told a federal environmental panel in the spring it officially opposes the Enbridge project because it has not met those conditions. But Clark has stressed the conditions were always meant to be a "path for success" and not meant to permanently block economic development.

This week's report on the province's oil-spill system will include recommendations on how to bring it up to the world-leading standards Clark has demanded.

A report produced by the government last year singled out Alaska and Norway for having leading oil-spill regimes, pointing out superior standards for training, spill-response technology, and permanently staffed and equipped emergency depots and vessels.

Holder, the Enbridge vice-president, said the company is willing to meet the government's world-leading standards.

"We can still make changes to the project," she said.

A key question, though, is whether any oilspill system will be adequate in the dangerous waters of B.C.'s north coast.

"For most open ocean spills, no oil from a spill is recovered," the B.C. government said in legal arguments on the Enbridge pipeline in May, adding oil recovery could be even more difficult in the fall and winter months in confined and treacherous waters.

"There are significant periods during which spill response will be impossible or severely constrained," said the legal brief.

Art Sterritt, leader of anti-pipeline Coastal First Nations, is dubious any oil-recovery system can be put in place that would convince First Nations groups to support the pipeline.

"This industry has spent trillions of dollars on longer pipelines and bigger super tankers to ship more oil to more destinations than ever - but they've spent hardly anything on a system to clean up a freaking spill," he said.

"If you can't prove to us that you can clean up your own accident — because we know you'll have one at some point — then we will fight you to the wall."

The government's report on B.C.'s oil-spill response system and how to improve it is bound to crank up the debate even higher this week.

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