Oil tanker Everest Spirit moving in Burrard Inlet

Report flags many oil spill response gaps


Tankers ply Vancouver harbour with looser requirements than in U.S., provincial government finds

The province’s own assessment that B.C. is underprepared to prevent and clean up oil spills has handed fresh ammunition to opponents of new pipelines and the tankers now moving through Burrard Inlet.

The 52-page technical report, released Monday (July 23) as the government laid out its demands for improved safety and a bigger share of benefits, raises multiple concerns about the risks and procedures already used to export Alberta oil via Kinder Morgan’s existing Trans Mountain pipeline through the Lower Mainland.

Among the findings:

– U.S. authorities require oil-laden tankers sailing east of Port Angeles to have escort tugs with them, while that’s voluntary for tankers in much of B.C. waters outside Vancouver harbour.

– B.C. fails to match requirements by Washington State requiring an emergency tug be on standby on the sea route.

– Washington bans Suezmax tankers, which carry 800,000 to one million barrels, from its inner waters but Port Metro Vancouver has said that tanker size could be allowed in Vancouver harbour if the Second Narrows is dredged.

– Alaska has far tougher spill response rules, requiring industry-funded emergency responders be able to handle a 300,000 barrel spill, compared to just 70,000 barrels in B.C., before international aid is invoked. B.C. crews would be “completely overwhelmed” by a 260,000-barrel Exxon Valdez-sized spill.

The report warns the current spill response capacity “appears to be insufficient” to handle the existing tanker shipments of oil from the Trans Mountain pipeline even if neither its expansion nor the new Enbridge pipeline proceed.

“Increasing this threshold is critical,” the report said of the 70,000-barrel response capability.

It also noted cleanup costs exceeding $1.3 billion may not be covered by insurance or industry funds and fall on taxpayers and others.

“Canada has no plan in place to cover the excess costs of a major spill,” it says.

No provision is made to deal with oiled wildlife, it says, and there’s no mechanism to make use of volunteers.

It also says the capacity to clean oiled shoreline should be boosted from the current 500 metres of shore per day.

“Exxon Valdez impacted 2,000 kilometres of shoreline. At 500 metres per day, a similar spill occurring in B.C. would require a 10-year cleanup.”

Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, said the improvements flagged in the report must be made regardless of whether new pipelines are approved.

She noted some tankers leaving Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby terminal are laden with conventional oil but others increasingly carry heavy oil sands bitumen, which she said increases the risk of a pipeline rupture on land and vastly increases the damage if a tanker spills at sea.

“We don’t know from tanker to tanker going through a heavily populated area what the risk is,” Wristen said. “There is no spill response for a bitumen spill. It’s going to the bottom.”

The provincial report also raises bitumen as an issue, noting it is more likely to sink and presents higher environmental risks and a more difficult cleanup if spilled.

“It is possible that the capacity that exists for crude oil spills – from training to equipment – may not be appropriate for bitumen,” the report said. “Thus, a major gap may likely exist for all current and future bitumen shipments taking place on Canada’s west coast.”

The provincial report notes oil shipping safety has improved and spills have become rarer worldwide.

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew, a member of Metro Vancouver’s port cities committee, said the deficiencies flagged in the provincial report deserve “serious examination” and added the challenge now is getting Ottawa to implement them.

“It is clear even from this technical report that Canada falls short,” said UBC political science professor Michael Byers. “Not only is the current capacity insufficient in the future, it already is insufficient and needs to be addressed.”