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Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Misty MacDuffee is Raincoast’s wild salmon program director.
The federal government’s recently stated intention to establish a “world-class oil spill response and prevention” plan is clearly designed to assuage public fears in British Columbia over the dramatic increase in oil tanker traffic that would accompany the Enbridge Northern Gateway project and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion.
Energy Minister Joe Oliver’s announcement, however, does little to diminish the risk or change the nature of shipping oil on the B.C. coast. The reality is that human nature and physical nature are the forces that produce tragedies at sea. Unforeseen events that inevitably occur in narrow channels, high-traffic corridors and bad weather increase the risk of oil tanker accidents on B.C.’s coast.
Major oil spills show that despite assurances of low risk and advanced technology, poor decisions still lead to major incidents. Groundings, collisions, equipment failures and explosions are all cited as causes for accidents, but these are consequences, not causes. Root causes of incidents are more insidious, with human error, cost-cutting and miscommunication foremost among them.
Lost in all the minister’s warm and fuzzy rhetoric about increased tanker inspections, tanker safety panels and new navigational aids is the fact that human failures account for up to 80 per cent of the world’s oil spills. Underscoring the fact there is no accounting for human error, B.C.’s largest oil spill response vessel ran aground en route to Oliver’s news conference last month.
The federal government’s public relations exercise does, however, speak to timing. It occurs before the conclusion of the federal review process for Northern Gateway, immediately precedes the 24th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster and coincides with the launch of a provincial election in which pipelines and oil tankers are certain to figure prominently in the outcome of the campaign.
Oliver’s announcement is viewed by many as nothing more than empty pandering to the legitimate concerns of British Columbians as the phrase “world-class oil spill response and prevention” is a meaningless platitude. There is no such thing as world-class oil spill response and prevention. The existing yardstick is wholly inadequate as estimates of open-water recovery by mechanical equipment recover only 10 to 15 per cent of the oil from a marine spill at best.
As we have learned from previous spills, no response is possible in rough weather, high seas and dangerous conditions.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/04/03/joe_olivers_platitudes_ignore_dirty_reality_of_oil_spills.html