Canada’s transport minister introduced a law today that would ban most oil tankers from the north coast and Haida Gwaii.
The proposed bill would ban any tankers that carry over 12,500 metric tons of crude or persistent oil from stopping or unloading anywhere near Haida Gwaii or along the B.C. coast between Alaska and the northern tip of Vancouver Island.
Anyone who defies the ban could face fines of up to $5 million.
Transportation Minister Marc Garneau says the bill makes good on a campaign promise made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2015.
“It’s one of the last major temperate rainforests on Earth,” said Garneau, when asked why the bill seeks to protect the north coast in particular.
“It’s an extremely important ecosystem.”
Besides crude oil, the ban applies to a list of 14 ‘persistent’ oils, such as various bunker fuels, synthetic crude, slack wax, and partially upgraded bitumen.
“They tend to sink, and there’s no way to remove them unless you do it manually,” said Garneau.
“We’re very concerned about those kinds in particular, because of their effect on the environment.”
If science later shows that more types of oil should be added to the ‘persistent’ list, Garneau said the bill allows for it.
Likewise, he said oils could be removed from the list if new technology allows for their safe clean-up.
“We did this according to the best science available,” he said.
The law does not ban bulk shipping of refined fuels that break up or evaporate in case of a spill, such as gasoline, jet fuel, or liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Also, the proposed law exempts tankers that carry less than 12,500 metric tons of crude or persistent oil as cargo — an exemption intended to allow critical shipment of fuels, home-heating oil, and other goods to coastal communities and industries.
Asked why the bill does not ban tankers from simply passing through Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, or Queen Charlotte Sound, Garneau said such passage is allowed by international law, but it has effectively stopped under a voluntary tanker exclusion zone that the U.S. and Canada agreed some 30 years ago.
“That has been respected since 1985, and we still intend to keep that voluntary exclusion zone in place,” he said.
Garneau made nine trips to B.C. to consult on the bill, including a meeting with Haida Nation President Peter Lantin and other leaders of coastal First Nations.
“There was a range of advice, and a range of opinions,” he said.
“It was not 100 per cent, everybody unanimous about any particular position.”
Garneau noted that besides the tanker ban, the Trudeau government’s $1.5-billion oceans protection plan will boost marine safety for the existing marine traffic around Haida Gwaii — a boost that is clearly needed given incidents such as the near running-aground of the disabled Russian cargo ship Simushir on the Haida Gwaii coast three years ago.
Patrick Kelly, board chair of Coastal First Nations, said today in a press release that while First Nations leaders have yet to review the proposed bill in detail, it appears to address most concerns.
“We fought hard against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project,” said Kelly.
“This law puts to an end any future oil pipeline and tanker project in our territories.”
Local NDP MP Nathan Cullen also said that at first glance, he’s optimistic about the new bill.
“In some ways, this is the home stretch of a 40-year campaign for people in the northwest, and right across British Columbia,” said Cullen, the MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, noting that proposed Liberal bill is similar to a private member’s bill he brought forward.
“It’s taken longer than I would have liked.”
Cullen said he looks forward to hearing expert testimony about the proposed bill, including testimony from people who live on the coast and Haida Gwaii.
While also broadly supportive, groups such as West Coast Environmental Law have called for a smaller local-shipments exemption that would only allow tankers carrying 2,000, rather than 12,500 metric tons of fuel. Others have questioned whether the western boundary of the voluntary exclusion zone is far enough from the Haida Gwaii coast.
Cullen said such issues are worth looking at in detail, along with the transit of oil barges smaller than 12,500 metric tons between Alaska and Washington State.
“I think the recent sinking and various close calls we’ve had on bulk transports will call into question any exemptions,” he said, noting that a tug boat which recently sank near Bella Bella spilled 100,000 litres of diesel even though the relatively small oil barge it was towing was empty.
“Sometimes it’s not the infrequent and very large, but the smaller and very frequent things that cause you the highest risk,” he said.