B.C. worries oil spill would "overwhelm" resources - Macleans.ca

B.C. worries oil spill would “overwhelm” resources

Officials in British Columbia privately warned the province lacks the ability to manage oil spills from existing and future oil traffic


VANCOUVER – Officials in British Columbia privately warned the province lacks the ability to manage oil spills from existing and future oil traffic, and even a moderate spill would overwhelm their ability to respond, documents show.

Ottawa’s decision to deal with coastal oil spills from a base in Quebec would make it much harder to contain spills, and Transport Canada and the Coast Guard lack the needed “environmental expertise” to manage them, officials said the documents obtained by The Canadian Press under freedom of information laws.

The notes were written by B.C. environment ministry bureaucrats for the incoming minister’s briefing book in June, and other concerns were detailed by emergency response officials in memos from last year.

B.C. environment ministry bureaucrats voiced a range of misgivings for minister Mary Polak.

“The Ministry of Environment, as the ministry responsible for preparedness, prevention, response and recovery for spills, is not adequately staffed and resourced to meet the existing and emerging expectations to address spills,” they wrote in the briefing book.

“Even a moderately-sized spill would overwhelm the province’s ability to respond and could result in a significant liability for government . . . The industry requirements, established by Transport Canada, are perceived as being insufficient in both scope and scale. For example, in both Washington State and Alaska industry requirements are far in excess of what is required in B.C.”

The B.C. government has said the Enbridge (TSX:ENB) proposed Northern Gateway pipeline — which would deliver Alberta oilsands products to a tanker port in Kitimat, B.C., for export to Asian markets — and Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of its existing TransMountain pipeline into the Port of Metro Vancouver could increase tanker traffic by more than 1,000 trips annually off the Pacific coast.

Enbridge is seeking approval for its project from the National Energy Board’s joint review panel, which finished its hearings in June and is expected to make a recommendation on whether the pipeline can go ahead by the end of the year. For the TransMountain project, Kinder Morgan has yet to formally submit its proposal for its required federal environmental review.

The briefing book notes many risks of a spill from a tanker negotiating B.C.’s coastal waters.

“Weather conditions and the remoteness of the pipeline’s route in B.C. could cause cleanup delays, leading to broader water, land and wildlife contamination. Sensitive habitats, local economies (fisheries and tourism, for example) and First Nations along the route could be affected.”

The briefing book estimates that at a rate of 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day, a pipeline spill lasting an hour could lead to 21,000 barrels spilling into B.C.’s wilderness.

When spills occur, under Canada’s polluter-pay principle, the polluter must start the response and pay for damages and clean-up costs. The lead government agency — the Coast Guard for water spills and the National Energy Board for land spills —doesn’t physically manage the incident itself but guides the polluter’s actions. Environment Canada’s task is to be always on call to provide scientific-based expert advice. The B.C. environment ministry has several mandates such as overseeing provincially regulated species and all B.C. Crown lands, and it has final authority over the final disposal of waste materials from a spill.

Mark Johnson, a spokesman for Environment Canada, said in an interview Ottawa agreed last March to create a tanker safety expert panel, due to report this November, and to fund eight new steps to ensure a “world-class” tanker safety system for shipping oil and chemicals “before major new energy infrastructure becomes operational.” These steps include more tanker inspections and monitoring, research, and the creation of a Canadian Coast Guard incident command system.

But last year, B.C. emergency response officials wrote that money was not the only problem: “Coast Guard and Transport Canada are to receive increased funding to respond,” stated one memo. “However, these agencies do not have the required environmental expertise.”

As well, cuts in the 2012 federal budget prompted Environment Canada to close its regional spill response offices in Vancouver and other cities and consolidated these in Quebec.

In May 2012, documents show officials in the B.C. Environmental Emergency Program in Victoria privately wrote this relocation would hinder efforts to contain an oil spill on the west coast. Those warnings were written about then-existing oil traffic, without factoring in future pipelines and tankers.

Wrote Program manager Graham Knox in an internal memo: “As a result, Environment Canada will have little or no surge capacity in the event of a major spill to bring in responders from across the country. . . Trying to provide the current level of service from Montreal is not realistic. Current EC staff have found it challenging to respond to spills outside of their base in Vancouver, and a move to Montreal will certainly increase these challenges many-fold.”

The document show local program officers agreed: “Not a good day,” wrote one. “Looks like heavier dependence on the province. Response activities cannot be managed remotely. Preparation and accumulation of local knowledge are vital to a cohesive and coordinated response to emergencies.”

Johnson declined to comment on the concerns outlined by Knox.

Stuart Bertrand, a spokesman for the B.C. environment ministry, confirmed in an interview the province now has “some additional workload” due to the relocation “and the reduced capacity of EC emergencies staff that now work out of Quebec.”

Bertrand added that the B.C. government is now exploring the concept of a new provincially-regulated but industry-led and funded “terrestrial spill response cooperative,” and “while we are pleased with the steps Ottawa is taking, we are also pressing forward with our own review to help define our world-class marine spill system.”

Federally, the shipping industry is responsible for funding the Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which responds to about 20 marine spills a year at a cost of about $5.3 million.

But Polak’s briefing book indicates a concern about the lack of commercial vessels that could be used to help in the event of an oil spill: “The level of (industry) resources, including spill response assets and trained personnel, provided to the Canadian Coast Guard for spill response appears to be inadequate and may be even more challenged with the anticipated increase in large vessel traffic on the B.C. coast.”

Johnson pledged new federal research on marine pollution risks and how to reduce oil-spill effects on marine life and habitats. In February, Transport Canada, working with the Coast Guard and Environment Canada, sought proposals for a Canadian-wide risk assessment study on ship-source oil spills, and awarded the contract to Genivar Inc.

Yet last year, Knox regretted the loss of at least one existing resource, notably Ottawa’s firing of the internationally respected Canadian oil spill expert Kenneth Lee and the elimination of his research centre in Dartmouth, N.S.

“This will limit resource managers’ access to critical scientific expertise when making response decisions in the future,” he wrote. “Oil spill expertise is eroding.”

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B.C. worries oil spill would “overwhelm” resources

  1. Canada and BC should take notes on who is going to pay for the cleanup at Lac Megantic but knowing the current governments they will just continue on the same path as if nothing happened.

  2. These guys are just unbelievable. On the one hand they propose to ramp up marine safety measures, while on the other they degrade existing spill response expertise and resources. Gateway will not happen. Even conservative bcers don’t have confidence that Harper’s boys have a clue what they’re up to on this fille, and aren’t willing to gamble with the coast; we won’t even get into what FNs think of them, and they hold the whip hand like it or not.
    Kinder Morgan has a fighting chance because resources and expertise are nearby, gateway is a dead duck.

  3. If traffic increases due to the Northern Gateway and/or an expanded Kinder Morgan line, then resources would be put in place ready to deal with an issue.

    But since those lines are not yet in operation, there’s no sense spending the money now to handle an increase in risk that is not there.

    • What a crock.

      • Why do you think they would increase spending if, as many claim, no oil is going to move anyway?

        • Why would they reduce current capabilities if one of their priorities is selling oil to Pacific nations, if they truly have any interest in environmental issues?

          • Oil is not actually being sold to Pacific nations, though (except perhaps trivially).

            So there’s no immediate need to spend the money.

            Why would you propose spending money now on a need that is not here and will not be here for at least a lustrum, and perhaps a decade, if ever?

          • So you think it is wise to reduce staffing, lose expertise, and move those tasked with making decisions more than half a continent way when your intent is to eventually significantly ramp up oil shipments that will (if you believe in environmental safety) require far more resources and expertise down the road?

            A government that values the environment would not only maintain status quo, but would also be starting planning to ramp up for the anticipated increased need. Puling back now is false economy – &/or an abandoning of environmental protections.

          • One doesn’t spend money today on things that are ‘down the road’.

            That’s why the Trans Canada is not eight lanes each direction from one end of the country to the other, for example. The traffic may eventually increase to require such a freeway, but for the moment it would be a waste of money.

            A waste of taxpayer money, of my money and of your money (assuming you’re a taxpayer and not a welfarite hippy)

          • You don’t cut back and lose valued resources either. There is arguably a current need for those they are letting go.
            Centralizing staff whose job it is to look after coastal spills to Montreal also makes no sense – except maybe to a myopic accountant who can see no father than the columns on the spreadsheet. Even if the pipeline doesn’t go through, this is a pretty boneheaded move.
            It will cost more, in the long run, to ramp up again – assuming (a) the pipeline goes through and (b) this government gives a crap about the environment (this latter point being highly doubtful). In the meantime, no new expenses are needed – just the retention of a sensible level of services. You will note that the report calls into question whether even current needs are being addressed. Offshore spills are federal, not provincial, responsibility.

        • Read the article again, this time carefully. In any case Keith has given you an answer.
          I have question for you. Tell me why you would move resources away from BC, and fire a leading clean up expert when your goal is to convince bcers to come on side? It’s counter intuitive. It’s frankly moronic. Which is something this federal govt speciizes in.

    • Been partying with JT? Because if you believe that, you’re definitely on something.

      The reality is simple, as amply demonstrated by this government’s actions to date: the environment simply isn’t a priority.

  4. Safety means accident prevention not not accident cleanup – you can’t improve the former by beefing up the latter. That would be like preventing cuts by ordering more bandages. The theory that the pipeline operator should initiate the response is clearly flawed: in the case of the largest pipeline spill of dilbit it took more than 17 hours just to stop the flow; then they employed containment measures that didn’t work (because dilbit and crude have different physical properties); then six months later the cleanup is still incomplete. Whether the BC government has adequate resources should be a moot point; however, it’s realistic to think that the province will have to shoulder the load unless they are willing to accept substantial damage. The result of Lac Megantic has been that there will be no recovery — they’ll simply fence off the damage and move the commercial area elsewhere; note, this is a much more manageable case than the mountains and fjords of BC.