Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s November proposal to ban oil tanker traffic from B.C.’s north coast received kind reception on the west coast of Canada where the Heiltusk First Nation was still busy responding to a devastating diesel spill from the Nathan E. Stewart, a sunken fuel barge tug that was leaking fuel into shellfish harvest grounds near Bella Bella.
The tanker ban, however, won’t protect the coast from incidents like the Nathan E. Stewart from happening again, nor from the threat of future refined oil tankers passing through the same waters, according to a new analysis by West Coast Environmental Law.
Reviewing the tanker ban proposal, which has yet to be passed as legislation, West Coast identified numerous loopholes and exclusions that allow for the continued transport of oil on B.C.’s north coast via foreign fuel barges and even, potentially, in supertankers full of refined oil products like jet fuel.
Tanker Ban Leaves Door Wide Open for Refined Fuel Supertankers
“I would describe the bill as sort of a mixed bag,” Gavin smith, staff counsel with West Coast, told DeSmog Canada.
“It’s very positive in that it is strong enough to prevent projects like Northern Gateway from proceeding in the region, but it is not strong enough to prevent oil refinery and refined oil supertanker projects in the region.”
And that’s of significant concern, Smith said, “because those projects are currently proposed and those applications have been submitted to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.”
There are currently two major oil refinery projects proposed for the Kitimat area.
Kitimat Clean, which is undergoing review with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (although that review was temporarily suspended in October), would refine 400,000 barrels of oil per day during it’s projected 50-year lifespan.
Kitimat Clean proposes to refine oil into products such as gasoline, jet fuel and propane for export in Very Large Crude Carriers or supertankers.
The Pacific Future Energy Refinery Project, proposed for 32 kilometres north of Kitimat, would refine 200,000 barrels of oil per day for a project lifespan of 60 years. The Pacific Future refinery is in the final stages of review with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
Tanker Ban Maintains Current Situation, Introduces New Risks
The tanker ban does restrict vessels larger than 12,500 tonnes from carrying crude oil products but not refined oil products.
Smith said Transport Canada was previously considering a 2,000 tonne threshold, but dramatically increased that figure to 12,500 tonnes.
“The 2,000 tonne was raised up in a Transport Canada discussion paper that was made public earlier this summer,” Smith said.
That 2,000 threshold really walks the line because it allows community shipments of fuel products to continue while not being so high as to allow for large-scale shipments of bulk oil products, he said.
West Coast has asked the federal government to provide an explanation for the increase in threshold.
“We recommend they provide a rational because from our perspective it came from nowhere.”
The 12,500 threshold is slightly higher than the highest recorded shipments in the regions, Smith said, “so they’ve tried to cap it at the highest level of shipments that have been occurring there.”
Jess Housty, council member of the Heiltsuk First Nation and responder to the sunken Nathan E. Stewart, said the current tanker ban is “simply inadequate” because it changes nothing.
“I think it’s important to note the tanker ban wouldn’t have prevented the Queen of the North from sinking and that’s still polluting waters. It wouldn’t have prevented the Nathan E. Stewart. It won’t prevent this kind of incident from happening again.”
The tanker ban as proposed is frustrating, Housty said, because Transport Minister Marc Garneau traveled to Heiltsuk territory to witness the diesel spill in November.
Housty said the tanker ban actually doesn’t affect any current vessel traffic on the North Coast, meaning all ongoing fuel barge traffic remains entirely untouched.
“I would challenge the federal government to give me a list of vessels that are actually impacted by this legislation. I can’t think of one.”
Housty concedes the tanker ban is significant in light of the rejected Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.
But she added, “I think it’s important to note for the Heiltsuk, we weren’t just fighting Northern Gateway because it was crude oil. There were a million reasons why we had issues with that project.”
And many of those issues will still be relevant if those supertankers were carrying refined projects, Housty said.
“This tanker ban, not only does it not help us minimize the current risks we face, it gives permission for massive new risks that we don’t fully understand and I don’t think the general public would be comfortable with.”
Although a Voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone already exists off the coast of British Columbia to prevent international transport of oil from entering internal coastal waters, U.S. shipments of oil have maintained a ‘right of innocent passage.’
That right has been the subject of criticism, which was renewed after the grounding of the Nathan E. Stewart, an American fuel barge tug (which was pushing an empty fuel barge at the time of grounding).
To avoid provoking international tensions, the tanker ban does not alter this right and limits its cover to only import and export marine facilities.
Tanker Ban to Be Locked in But Details Subject to Change
Smith said the federal government did not include a sunset clause in the tanker ban, which means the legislation is not likely to be undone going forward unless by act of Parliament.
However, the types of oil covered in the ban are subject to a definition that has yet to be determined and could change over time.
“The federal government has to answer this question of what do you want covered or encompassed in the oil tanker ban,” Smith said. “In the legislation itself it will say any crude oil cannot be carried in an oil tanker and crude oil will have a definition that will include things that you would expect like bitumen and so on.”
A ‘schedule’ appending the legislation will list other types of products, known as persistent oil products, will also be included in the ban. The types of oil products listed on that schedule can be changed however.
“That approach give the federal government some flexibility to decide what it does and does not want to include in the moratorium,” Smith said.
The federal government has not disclosed what types of fuels will listed on the schedule but did note that products such as jet fuel, propane and LNG will be permanently excluded from the ban.
Tanker Ban Could Still Be Strengthened
The tanker ban feels like another one of Justin Trudeau’s broken promises, Housty said.
“ I think this is a case were they have ticked a box and completely ignored the sprit of what needs to be done,” Housty said.
“I hoped there could have been more trust on this file.”
Smith said the federal government has plans to pass the tanker ban bill by March.
“In terms of what types of improvements, we feel the 2,000 threshold would ensure a good balance between community supply and preventing large-scale bulk shipments,” he said.
“We also think the types of oil kinds should be refined and crude oils writ large. It shouldn’t be quite as narrow as the federal government set out. And we propose the ban cover the entire Hecate Strait, Dixon Exit and Queen Charlotte Sound.”
Smith said ultimately the North Coast Tanker Ban is meant to protect the North Coast from oil tanker spills.
“These are the changes we feel would make the act the strongest legislation possible.”
Image: Sunken Nathan E. Stewart tug near Bella Bella, B.C. Photo: April Bencze/Heiltsuk Tribal Council