Coast Guard upgrades for West Coast address only half of oil spill response

oil spill response
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, second from left, on a ship’s bridge. Photo: Government of Canada.

What are Trudeau’s plans for industry side of West Coast oil spill response?

The Canadian Government announced a $1.5 billion marine safety upgrade Monday and West Coast eco-activists were quick to complain the new plan almost guarantees a green light for the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Maybe, but if that’s true, why didn’t Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talk about the industry side of oil spill response?

oil spill response
WCMRC cleaning up recent tug diesel spill near Bella Bella.

The omission is curious.

Trudeau’s announcement focused almost exclusively on the Coast Guard: strengthening Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centres; leasing two large vessels capable of towing commercial vessels and large container ships; installing towing kits on Coast Guard major vessels so they can respond to ships adrift; training for search and rescue, environmental response, and incident command for indigenous communities in BC; six new lifeboats stations in strategic West and East coast locations.

The upgrades will be welcomed in British Columbia because the Coast Guard is the first line of defence against any sort of marine pollution and provides incident command in the case of a major environmental event.

oil spill response
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What was missing from the announcement was the capacity of the West Coast Marine Response Corporation to respond to a tanker spill if Trans Mountain gets the go ahead.

WCMRC is the private corporation established by federal legislation that maintains the skimmer ships and booms and trained people to contain and clean up actual spills. There are five shareholders (Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, Chevron, Suncor, and Trans Mountain/Kinder Morgan) and 2,000 members (marine operators, air services, lumber mills, fishing camps, ferries, port authorities and cruise ships) that pay annual dues. WCMRC is completely funded by industry.

WCMRC is currently required by law to be capable of responding to a 10,000 tonnes spill anywhere along the West Coast. The company has said in the past that it if a West Coast pipeline is approved, it is considering plans to expand that capacity to 27,000 tonnes.

Is that enough? Is it the right equipment? Are minimum response times, mandated by regulation, fast enough? If they were faster, would WCMRC need more and better equipment?

A WCMRC spokesperson texted that the company is still waiting to hear from the federal government and has no idea when that communication might happen.

British Columbians have been promised a world class oil spill response system.

At some point, someone has to define what world class means.

The Trans Mountain Expansion project would increase pipeline capacity from 300,000 b/d to 890,000 b/d, and increase associated tanker traffic from five to 34 per month in and out of the company’s Westridge Marine Terminal near Burnaby.

Metro Vancouver residents are naturally concerned about a tanker spill. Everyone remembers or has heard about the horrific 1989 ExxonValdez disaster and its impact on coastal Alaska, not that far away.

Eco-activists have been predicting for years the dire consequences of more tankers plying coastal waters.

“Yes, the federal government needs to invest in marine safety. But those gestures are meaningless if at the same time you exponentially increase the risk,” said Kai Nagata of Dogwood Initiative in a press release.

“British Columbians want fewer foreign oil tankers on the coast, not hundreds more.”

Last year, a grain carrier leaked 17 barrels (just five hot tubs full) of bunker fuel into English Bay and the lower mainland freaked out. Just last month a tug boat pushing an empty fuel barge sunk near Bella Bella on the northern coast with around 200,000 litres of diesel fuel and British Columbians bemoaned the lack of a “world class response” to the spill – despite the fact not one in a thousand could define what such a response should look like.

If the Trudeau Government intends to green light Trans Mountain Expansion, as appears likely, it must address two questions:

One, do the Coast Guard upgrades announced yesterday bring that part of the response system up to world class standards?

Two, what plans do the Liberals have for WCMRC? Does its current capacity qualify as world class? If the Kinder Morgan pipeline is approved, will WCMRC be required to upgrade its capacity to world class?

The Liberals are in for a bitter fight over Trans Mountain. Eco-activists have promised to make the ferocious protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota look like a Sunday picnic in comparison.

An objective assessment of the questions, backed up by data, science and expert analysis – rather than vague reassurances – is absolutely required if Ottawa has any hope of generating political support for a new pipeline.

Do the Liberals have enough time, since they must make up their mind about Trans Mountain before Dec. 19? Probably not.

Let’s hope so, because without those answers, Trans Mountain supporters are going to have one hand tied behind their back – an unenviable position when battling well-funded environmental organizations and passionate First Nations opponents.

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