Reality check on Transport Canada’s claims for tanker safety

Harper’s public relations and spin team hit Vancouver in March claiming to have substantially revamped environmental protections for pipelines and tankers.   Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Minister of Transport Denis Lebel described their new regime for oil spill safety against the backdrop of the Port of Vancouver.  Minster Joe Oliver trotted out a line we are bound to hear more often, in the boiler plate of nonsense to which we seem to be inured, that the Exxon Valdez spill could never happen in Canada.

The really stunning aspect of the announcement was that the media largely fell for it – as though something serious was being announced.  The event that went unreported at the time, that one of the emergency response vessels for tanker spills, scheduled to be part of the press conference backdrop, ran aground on its way.  It is the perfect metaphor for a large non-event.

The March 2012 budget had actually included almost everything re-announced a year later in March 2013.  It included pipeline inspections and new tanker regulations.  Not only was the announcement duplicated in the 2012 budget the new measures were repeatedly cited as though they were part of the budget omnibus bill C-38.  Since C-38 was over 400 pages long, perhaps they did not expect anyone to read it. Maybe they never read it themselves, as Minister Oliver trumpeted then, “Mr. Speaker, the bill will do a great deal to protect the environment… As I mentioned in my remarks, tankers will have to be double-hulled, there will be mandatory pilotage, there will be enhanced navigation, there will be aerial surveillance and additional measures will be taken in particular cases when necessary.”

None of this was in C-38.  It is, in fact, what he announced in Vancouver on March 18, 2013.  I imagine he wondered why he had such a strong sense of déjà-vu.

The only new aspect of the announcement was of an expert panel to review tanker safety and to study the specific risks of a spill involving bitumen and diluents.  As the entire Enbridge Joint Review Panel hearing has been dealing with a product it does not plan to ship  — crude oil – it is certainly worthwhile finding out how bitumen and diluents will behave.

At the Vancouver press conference, Oliver and Lebel trumpeted that they had tabled for First Reading  the Safeguarding Canada’s Seas and Skies Act.  I sought it out to read it.  Its introduction for First Reading had been splashless. Once again, I was underwhelmed.  The bill is merely a series of housekeeping measures. The “safeguarding skies” piece deals with aviation and aeronautics, through changes to inspections of aviation accidents and aeronautic indemnities.  There is no environmental aspect to the “skies” component.  Then there are the amendments related to “seas.”  The Marine Act is amended to change the date for the approval of a new director of a port authority. The only oil-spill related components are in the Marine Liability Act.  The act is brought into compliance with the 2010 International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in connection with the Carriage and Noxious Substances by Sea.   So, nothing about double-hulled tankers.

The reality is that since 1993, all new tankers are required, by international agreement, to be double-hulled. According to a great summary on the issue by Mitch Anderson in September 27, 2010 The Tyee, (“No, Double Hull Tankers Do Not Ensure ‘Total Safety,’”) there were only 50 single-hulled tankers operating anywhere on the planet that year.  None were allowed in North American waters.

Do double hulls eliminate the risk of oil spills?  Not actually.  Despite the exuberance of Joe Oliver’s rhetoric, double-hulls possess no magical powers.  Their use has not ended the risk of accidents and oil spills.  Collisions with barges and freighters have caused oil spills of millions of litres in ports around the world.  Double hulls can be sliced open and oil spills out.

The Transport Canada website was prettied up for the announcement, with a “fact sheet” transparently designed to create the impression the British Columbia coast is routinely plied by hundreds of super-tankers.

Here are some of the claims from the Transport Canada website:

  • Oil tankers have been moving safely and regularly along Canada’s West Coast since the 1930’s.
  • In 2009-2010, there were about 1500 tanker movements on the West Coast….
  • A federal moratorium off the coast of BC applies strictly to oil and natural gas exploitation and development, not to tanker storage or movement.

In fact, the 1972 moratorium was precisely against oil tanker traffic along BC’s north coast.  That was a federal-provincial moratorium.  Most readers will not notice the subtlety of the website reference to the “federal moratorium.”   Moreover, the 1500 tanker “movements” refers to what Transport Canada defines as “every time a ship (or vessel) commences or ceases to be underway. Underway is defined as a vessel that is not at anchor, or made fast to the shore, or aground.”  And by tanker, they mean “a cargo ship fitted with tanks for carrying liquid in bulk.” Not oil tankers.   In 2011, the total number of oil tankers in and out of the Port of Vancouver was 82.  None of them were super-tankers and none of them operate without risk.

In the on-going war of words to get super-tankers carrying bitumen crude into our waters, it is amazing any media covered Joe Oliver’s announcement as if anything meaningful had been added to the discussion.

Originally printed in the Hill Times.