Marine Environmental Response – Canada’s Ship-Source Oil Pollution Regime

An effective marine environmental response is a need for many coastal nations where the transportation of crude oil by sea is a common and often extensive practice. Oil accounts for approximately one-third of all Canadian cargo volume, and it is the largest international commodity handled by the shipping industry. The transport of crude oil by tanker on the Pacific Coast of Canada is currently modest by comparison.

The issues around increasing shipping traffic and the risk to the environment are emotionally and politically charged. The April 8, 2015, oil spill from the MV Marathassa (in Vancouver’s English Bay) demonstrated the intense level of public interest in marine environmental response.

Canada has extensive experience safely managing oil tanker traffic with policies and regulations similar to other major shipping nations. Canada is party to the same international agreements and rules—such as those set out by the International Maritime Organization— like many other major shipping nations, including the requirement for tug escort and pilotage. Further, if an oil spill were to occur, compensation in Canada exceeds what is available internationally.

The reports of the Tanker Safety Expert Panel and the response to the small oil spill incident in Vancouver harbour both confirm that adjustment to the current practices is needed to achieve a “world-class” marine environmental response performance.

With the reports of the Tanker Safety Panel now in place, we are standing at the cusp of a major decision. Do we drift toward a gradual improvement in Canada’s Ship-Sourced oil pollution regime, or do we chart a strong course toward a clear destination based on a regional risk management frameworkthat considers each of the following stages:

– Prevention: measures intended to reduce the probability of an incident.

– Response: preparedness measures or activities planned in advance for prompt and effective pollution response.

– Mitigation: measures intended to minimize the consequences of oil pollution incidents.

– Restoration: actions and rehabilitation activities that address the damage caused by oil spill incidents.

In deciding on when and how to make improvements, it is important to note two facts. The first is that an over-reliance on industry-led initiatives and the polluter-pay principle can undermine the prospects for government, industry, First Nations and community collaboration necessary to be effective as evidenced by the experience in leading jurisdictions. The second is that public opinion on the British Columbia coast is galvanizing behind that belief that ensuring an adequate response capability (at the national and local level) is primarily a government responsibility that should not be delegated.

The journey toward achieving a “world class” marine response regime must be guided by the overriding concern that protecting the public interest needs to be at the forefront of all decision marking. Protecting the public interest cannot be achieved with “on-again”, “off-again” political attention, processes and funding to marine response. We need to work constantly to maintain high standards of marine response.

If Canada’s is to prosper, we must have access to global markets for both imports and exports including energy commodities. We do not have the luxury of delaying implementation of known risk management measures that would improve marine environmental response outcomes. Perhaps, with the Expert Panel on Tanker Safety’s work now completed, it is now time to shift the debate to the merits of various ideas on how to best pay for a world-class marine environmental response system that has been demanded by both politicians and the public alike. Otherwise, we run the risk of drifting toward making any improvements, and such efforts would not likely be sustainable over the long term.