Questions grow on tanker traffic

Feb 13, 2011, Times Colonist (Read article on originating site site)

Trust us, say proponents of a pipeline megaproject that would increase oil tanker traffic along B.C.‘s coast. We are capable of, and committed to, ensuring safety. Risks are manageable and all necessary measures in place.

The problem is that the claims have consistently been contradicted by the facts, or at least challenged.

The latest example concerns management of the current exclusion zone.

Under a non-binding agreement, U.S. tankers carrying oil from an Alaskan pipeline are excluded from a zone along the Canadian coast from Alaska to the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

The Harper government maintains the area is watched with vigilance. “That exclusion zone, which is closely monitored and strictly enforced, makes sure that no oil tanker traffic comes down the Inside Passage,” Transport Minister Chuck Strahl said in the House of Commons in December. The government rejects any increased safety measures as a result.

But Strahl’s claim has been challenged by reports that the Canadian Coast Guard’s radar system can only monitor traffic near Victoria and that automatic identification system transponders also have a limited range that does not guarantee all ships are tracked. The coast guard has not challenged the reports that it relies on industry to report tanker locations.

In December, the federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development dealt another blow to proponents’ claims. He warned the government isn’t prepared to deal with tanker spills. The coast guard’s equipment is out of date, as is its emergency response plan and its equipment. It can’t track how many spills occur each year, how large they are and whether they required a response. It hasn’t assessed the risk of spills for a decade.

In October, the industry’s claims for the safety of today’s shipping were undermined when the captain of a freighter was sentenced for skippering the 200-metre ship in Juan de Fuca Strait while impaired.

In July, Enbridge, the company proposing the $5.5 billion pipeline project from Alberta’s oilsands to Kitimat, had to deal with a disaster in which one of its Michigan pipelines failed and dumped almost 900,000 gallons of oil into a Michigan creek.

And in April, the BP offshore oil rig disaster killed 11 and began three months of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. Regulators and industry had offered all the same kinds of assurances about safety and oversight and disaster response.

Enbridge hopes to bring 525,000 barrels of oil a day to Kitimat and points to great economic benefits. Some 220 tankers a year would travel through B.C. coastal waters bound for Asian markets. It says state-of-the-art technology and strict government oversight would ensure safety.

Given the record of government and industry, there is no reason to accept the assurances.