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Federal government rolling out ‘world-class’ oil spill prevention regime

OTTAWA — The Harper government will announce Monday in Vancouver plans to create what it calls a “world-class” oil spill prevention regime, the Vancouver Sun is reporting.
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Cesar Valdez throws against the Los Angeles Angels during the first inning of their AL baseball game in Toronto on Sunday.

OTTAWA — The Harper government will announce Monday in Vancouver plans to create what it calls a “world-class” oil spill prevention regime, the Vancouver Sun is reporting.

The announcement is in response to public opinion concerns which last summer prompted B.C. Premier Christy Clark to issue five key demands — including improved tanker safety — that she says must be met before the provincial government will agree to allow oilsands pipelines to the West Coast.

A senior federal source said Sunday the announcement is a response to British Columbia’s concerns, noting that the Harper government also included pipeline safety measures in last spring’s budget.

Ottawa is committed to developing a world-class system to address tanker safety in Canada, particularly off the West Coast, he said.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Transport Minister Denis Lebel will be in B.C. to provide details of a long-term funding commitment to the National Aerial Surveillance Program, first established in 1991, as well as new funding measures to “enhance” the program’s coverage, especially along the northern B.C. coast.

The ministers will also announce a more rigorous tanker inspection program as well as the creation of a “Tanker Safety Expert Panel.”

The Harper government has made no secret that one of its top priorities is to ensure that Canada’s oilsands sector has access to Asian markets for Alberta’s diluted bitumen crude.

But two proposals to accomplish that objective — Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project to Kitimat, and Kinder Morgan’s plan to twin its existing pipeline from the Edmonton area to Burnaby — have been hugely controversial.

One of the key public worries is the risk of a major oil spill.

Clark, viewed as somewhat more open to oilsands pipelines than New Democratic Party leader Adrian Dix, announced last summer five conditions that would have to be met before her government would approve such a project.

She said any oilsands pipeline must successfully complete an environmental assessment, and “world-leading” spill monitoring systems must be set up both along the coast and on the land around the pipeline route.

First Nations rights and concerns must also be addressed and B.C. must get a “fair share” of the wealth generated by the project, Clark said.

Monday’s announcement is aimed at public concerns about the risk of a spill similar to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the Alaskan coast.

The federal source noted that Canada already has a strong spill prevention system and has never experienced a major incident.

However, it can always be better, he said.

A key component of the strategy is to “enhance” the National Aerial Surveillance Program, which has three aircraft — including one in Vancouver — engaged in monitoring shipping activities and watching for illegal discharges.

The ministers will also announce changes to the existing tanker inspection system. All Canadian tankers are now inspected manually, while foreign-flagged vessels are inspected on their first visit and then subjected to follow-ups for tankers who come regularly to Canada.

From now on, all foreign vessels will get the same treatment as Canadian ships, with required annual inspections.

The final component is the creation of a Tanker Safety Expert Panel that will be asked to review the current system and come up with new suggestions to ensure Canada meets the “world class” test.

One Dash-8 airplane is on each coast, one in Vancouver and the other in Moncton, N.B., while a Dash-7 is based mainly in Ottawa but is deployed in Iqaluit, Nunavut, during the Arctic shipping season.

The federal government also contracts other aircraft when needed.

The National Aerial Surveillance Program, according to the official, has had significant success in laying charges against polluters and reducing pollution incidents, according to the official.

In 2011-12, National Aerial Surveillance Program pilots flew 2,064 patrol hours, tracking 73,315 vessels and detecting 135 pollution incidents.

It works closely with Environment Canada’s Integrated Satellite Tracking of Pollution program, which operates as the government’s early-warning system to detect anomalies on the ocean surface that may have been caused by a spill.