VANCOUVER - The federal government announced changes Monday to improve oil tanker safety off Canadian coasts, and shore up support for several controversial projects that would increase oil exports from British Columbia.
The changes include some new measures — administrative penalties for polluters and mandatory marine response plans for oil terminal operators — and increased frequency for measures already in place, such as annual inspections for all tankers and offshore aerial surveillance.
They also include a review by a panel of experts and a promise of future improvements, which was dismissed as "greenwashing" by the Council of Canadians, which opposes proposed pipeline projects that would deliver oil from Alberta to the B.C. coast for shipping overseas.
"Our government listens to the people ... What we're announcing today is a result of our listening to British Columbians and responding to their concerns," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said at a news conference on the deck of Port of Metro Vancouver, against a backdrop of tankers and shipping vessels in Burrard Inlet.
Without naming any specific project, Oliver reiterated that if Canada is to benefit from its resource potential, products must reach Asia and the rest of the world.
"We have an opportunity to ensure that our products, particularly oil and liquefied natural gas, reach world markets and command world prices," Oliver said. "Our government knows that to be an energy superpower, we need a world-class safety system for our waters."
In Ottawa, the Conservatives tabled legislation making it mandatory for the operators of oil handling facilities to submit spill response plans to the government, and added additional monetary penalties for marine polluters.
Oliver named an expert panel on tanker safety to review the current regime. A report on regulations south of the 60th parallel is due this fall, and a report on Arctic shipping a year later.
The minister said the government will also review the oil pollution liability regime now in place, to determine if $1.3 billion currently available in various funds is sufficient to ensure Canadian taxpayers don't end up footing the bill for a spill.
Ottawa will also conduct scientific research into the behaviour of diluted bitumen, the molasses-like oil produced in the oil sands that pipeline opponents argue sinks to the floor of the ocean and cannot be cleaned up.
And the federal government will designate Kitimat — the tanker port terminus of the Northern Gateway project — as a public port, offering better traffic control and vessel safety. Other ports may also be brought under the control of a port authority, reversing a trend by consecutive governments toward divesting regional ports.
The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker port would see an increase of about 250 tankers a year into Kitimat. The proposed doubling of Kinder Morgan's existing TransMountain pipeline would increase vessel traffic to Port Metro Vancouver by about 400 annually.
Several pipeline opponents immediately dismissed the changes.
"The Harper government is trying to find a way to ignore public opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline while making it look like they're listening, using 'world-class' greenwashing," Maryam Adrangi, of the Council of Canadians, said in an email.
Darcy Dobell, vice-president of the World Wildlife Fund Canada's Pacific region, said there are no regulations that would change her mind on the Northern Gateway project.
"It doesn't address our fundamental concern. Our concern has never been about the regulations needing tightening. Our concern is that the Great Bear Rainforest is no place for oil pipelines or oil tankers, at all," she said.
Darryl Anderson, whose Wave Point Consulting has studied marine safety worldwide, said the changes are a start but more remains to be done.
"This addresses some of the issues," Anderson said. "It's got to be backed up with resources."
Officials said $120 million has been earmarked over the next five years for the changes. But critics point out the Canadian Coast Guard and ocean research have been cut by more than that in recent budgets.
"First, the Conservatives tried to ram through the Northern Gateway project without listening to British Columbians," said Peter Julian, the federal NDP's natural resources critic. "Now they are trying to back-paddle with a lacklustre spill plan that doesn't even begin to address the Conservative cuts to spill prevention."
The B.C. government has said a "world-class" oil spill response plan is one of five conditions that will have to be in place before the province will support the Northern Gateway, along with First Nations involvement and a "fair share" of revenues.
B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said the province is currently conducting a study of marine oil spill safety and when it's done, will know whether the federal changes meet the condition.
"We haven't seen the details but, on first impressions, I would say this is a very positive response to the premier's call for higher standards," Lake said.