Federal panel says time to upgrade tanker ship oil spill rules as traffic jumps

OTTAWA – Potential polluters should be prepared for a worst-case scenario and face unlimited liability in the case of an oil spill from one of their tanker ships, a government-appointed panel recommends.

The three-member panel of experts has delivered a report with 45 recommendations for improving Canada’s preparedness for oil spills from tankers and barges.

It’s the first major review of Canada’s ship-source oil spill regime since it was implemented in the mid-1990s and forms a key part of the federal Conservative government’s efforts to reassure Canadians about the impacts of an energy resource boom.

The 66-page report notes that two current pipeline proposals alone — by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan — could bring another 600 tankers through British Columbia waters, while posing new hazards by transporting diluted bitumen and liquefied natural gas.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, at a news conference in Vancouver, welcomed the report Tuesday while listing a series of actions she said the government has already taken to improve tanker safety.

Those include a promise to increase inspections of foreign tankers and a government study on the behaviour of diluted bitumen in sea water.

Raitt said the goal of the panel report is to improve on “an already robust tanker safety system.”

The study recommends removing the current $161-million liability limit for each spill in favour of an unlimited liability for polluters.

“We feel that potential polluters should be prepared, through their contracted Response Organizations, to respond to a worst-case discharge, whether it be the full cargo of a tanker or a complete release of bunker fuel on board a vessel,” says the report.

Its executive summary makes the point even more clearly: “Canadian taxpayers should not bear any liability for spills in Canadian waters.”

The report recommends annual spill training exercises, and regional risk assessments based on local geography. And it calls for faster emergency responses to spills.

“In our view, the current response time planning standards will not ensure the best possible outcomes in some spill scenarios.”

According to the experts, current planning is “particularly lacking” in the area of cleaning and rehabilitating oiled wildlife and the management of the oily waste from spill recoveries.

And the panel is are recommending increased resources for the coast guard, Environment Canada and Transport Canada to help improve the system.

The report is the first of two that the government commissioned from the three-member panel back in March.

A second study will deal with spill hazards in the Arctic as well as an examination of hazardous and noxious spills — such as bitumen and liquefied natural gas — on marine environments.