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Opinion: Shipping oil has never been safer


Opinion: Shipping oil has never been safer

Improved tanker design, navigation and a fleet of response vessels means spills aren’t inevitable

Written by: Stephen Brown and Kevin Gardner, Special to the Vancouver Sun, October 8, 2013

An oil tanker is guided by tug boats as it goes under the Lions Gate Bridge at the mouth of Vancouver Harbour. Photograph by: Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press

An oil tanker is guided by tug boats as it goes under the Lions Gate Bridge at the mouth of Vancouver Harbour.
Photograph by: Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press

As British Columbians continue to debate energy development and transportation proposals to allow Canada to ship oil exports to new markets, questions are being asked of safety in the marine sector and of our ability to deal with an oil spill in the unlikely event of such an occurrence.

Shipping oil in and out of B.C. is nothing new. Oil has been uneventfully moved on the coast of British Columbia for the past 100 years. For most of that time, the technologies of precision navigation that are today compulsory equipment on the bridge of a ship simply did not exist.

But what of the Exxon Valdez?, argue some critics.

The marine industry can reasonably claim to have learned the lessons of Exxon Valdez. In fact, had the Exxon Valdez been built to construction standards first introduced in the 1990s, not a drop of oil would have been spilled in that incident.

Before any tanker is chartered by an oil company, the vessel is vetted in detail with the assistance of international databases describing every aspect of a tanker’s history. As a consequence, tanker owners are highly incentivized to ensure their vessels, and the crews that operate them, maintain an exemplary record of performance.

Highly experienced marine pilots, assisted by equally senior tug masters commanding state of the art and immensely powerful tugs, guide tankers through local waters. It’s the law.

Real time wind and current monitors in combination with comprehensive communications systems ensure marine pilots in British Columbia are at the leading edge of safety innovation.

And so modern ship construction, rigorous training and safety standards, and advanced technologies ensure oil spills today are not inevitable. The proof is clear: Oil spills in the marine environment have declined massively over the past 30 years and in 2012 there were no large spills anywhere in the world.

Yet B.C.’s shipping sector is not resting on its laurels. The marine industry is fully supportive of the federal government’s decision to conduct a review of oil spill preparedness and response, which will be published later this year.

And Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, the organization charged by the federal government with maintaining oil spill preparedness on Canada’s West Coast, is a leader in adopting the latest international marine safety approaches.

The Canada Shipping Act requires that we have the ability to respond to a 10,000-tonne (70,000-barrel) oil spill. WCMRC exceeds that capacity by two and a half times — and we continue to grow our capacity even further.

WCMRC has initiated detailed mapping of the B.C. coastline to improve the organization’s coastal knowledge base, maintains strategically located equipment caches in 11 locations from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, and conducts training exercises regularly across the B.C. coast.

In the unlikely event of a spill, WCMRC has a fleet of 31 vessels at the ready. An additional 80 vessels manned by well-trained and experienced contractors are also available. And WCMRC can call upon a worldwide network of resources and personnel that further enhances its ability to respond rapidly and effectively to any spill.

WCMRC continues to benchmark itself against several other leading countries and was recently part of a B.C. delegation to study Norway’s experiences with the aim of continually improving its own expertise.

Federal and provincial governments and the oil and pipeline companies are making unprecedented investments in scientific research to better understand the behaviour of different products in the marine environment. The outcome of this research will provide WCMRC with an even higher level of advanced knowledge for spill preparedness and response.

As for the ability to pay for a significant cleanup, however remote the likelihood, Canada is a world leader. While the principle of “polluter pays” is applicable in all jurisdictions worldwide, thanks to a layer of national reserve funding known as the Canadian Ship Source Oil Pollution Fund (CSSOPF), the Canadian marine industry’s coverage is over and above statutory international requirements.

And following a detailed international review in 2012, the Limits to Liability for Maritime Claims Convention (LLMC) has raised liability limits in the marine sector by 51 per cent effective 2015. Even so, a review of the size of the CSSOPF forms part of the federal government’s current review of preparedness.

In summary, the world fleet of around 12,500 tankers is quietly but safely going about its business providing essential service to the world economy 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

We should demand of the marine sector the highest standards. We must also recognize how far the sector has come in terms of marine safety and oil spill preparedness and response.

Stephen Brown is president of the Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia. Kevin Gardner is president and general manager of Western Canada Marine Response Corporation.

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