Is BC’s new spill response law really world-leading?

The provincial government’s new and long-awaited oil spill preparedness bill will soon be debated in the legislature for the first time. The bill is an important step forward, promising new provisions aimed at reducing the tremendous gaps in B.C.’s ability to respond to spills. Although this is good, and much-needed in our province, the bill has some notable missing pieces.

Firstly, it includes no strategies to specifically address spills of diluted bitumen. None, zip, nil, nada, zero. Yet somehow Environment Minister Mary Polak is trying to champion it as being the requirement to meet the third of the government’s famous five conditions to approve new heavy oil pipelines: world-leading, land-based spill preparedness and response. That is quite the leap.

Bitumen already makes its way across our province every day in Kinder Morgan’s existing Trans Mountain Pipeline. If the company gets its way, three times the amount of bitumen would be crossing our pristine province — yet we have no strategy to respond if it spills into our environment.

In the U.S., Congress recently commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to examine what happens when diluted bitumen does spill in the environment. The resulting report concludes that it sinks, and there are no known effective technologies to clean it up — and that all levels of oil spill plans in the U.S. should be updated to address the unique challenges of diluted bitumen spills.

But here in B.C., the province is not addressing bitumen even though it’s in the throes of modernizing its oil spill plans. With a deafening silence on this challenge, and with our nearest neighbour considering regulatory changes to reflect more Canadian bitumen crossing the border, it’s hard to see how the new law can be described as “world-leading”. We know that there are no strategies for effective clean-up of sunken diluted bitumen — none — so checking off that third condition is simply not possible.

Unfortunately, this is just one of many make-or-break issues that are left to be addressed through regulations that will be developed after the bill is made into law, instead of being debated by our representatives on the public record.

And that brings us to the second major gap in this bill: Who’s really in the driver’s seat? The government is proposing the formation of a provincial organization to lead this new framework, but it’s unclear who will be in charge of this body. Good intentions to make potential polluters pay for preparedness as well as response through membership in this new organization could be undermined if it ends up being led by industry, rather than operating in the public interest.

We deserve new rules that put the protection of our communities above the industry’s bottom line.

Dangerous goods travel across our province every day. We have long needed better plans that put us in a stronger position to protect our environment and communities from spills of all kinds. This bill offers some significant and very welcome improvements towards this goal.

Firstly, spillers will have to answer for much more. They will have to comply with detailed planning and response requirements, including details on the time it takes to respond to a spill, techniques they will use in response, and contingency plans assessing the likelihood and impacts of a spill.

Secondly, area response plans will be developed, providing clarification about the roles and responsibilities of response partners in specific regions around the province, as well as what equipment and personnel will be needed.

Thirdly, there are increased disclosure requirements to identify the substances being transported, potentially reversing the refusal of some companies to reveal certain details about the hazardous goods being shipped. With strong enforcement measures, this could help to overcome a key barrier to swift and effective response.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the public will have input, with provisions for municipalities, First Nations and citizens to add critical local perspectives. Lifting the veil of secrecy that currently characterizes spill planning will strengthen the system by allowing response measures to be tailored to local circumstances, and will hopefully pave the way towards a more collaborative approach to spill management.

For a government that acknowledges there is little public trust in the existing framework, getting this piece right is essential. The province is now facing a fantastic opportunity to involve communities early and hold a full-scale public consultation on the upcoming development of the regulations.

We welcome this new oil spill response bill because it helps B.C. prepare for threats from existing shipments of hazardous goods. However, it is in no way a license for new pipelines to be built.

We will be watching closely to see who ends up in the driver’s seat when the dust finally settles. That will tell the tale of whether spill risks can truly be minimized — and the public interest guarded — in the years to come.

This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun

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