U.S. worried about Canada's ability to respond to oil spills, records reveal

By Stanley Tromp, Globe and Mail, Apr. 28, 2015



Officials have been wary of B.C.'s oil-response capabilities for years, saying Ottawa's standards are ‘decades behind' their own

Newly released U.S. documents show American authorities are nervously eyeing Canadian proposals to triple the number of oil tanker voyages through the shared waters off B.C.'s coast, saying among themselves that Canadian standards to clean up a major spill are decades behind those of the U.S. and leave states vulnerable to environmental damage and costs.

After the MV Marathassa spilled sticky, toxic bunker fuel into Vancouver's harbour this month, Washington State officials noted in interviews with The Globe and Mail that the state's oil-spill response regime was far advanced from Canada's. One former maritime lawyer said if the U.S. Coast Guard ranked an eight or nine out of 10 worldwide, then Canada's Coast Guard would rank a one or two.

But the records obtained by The Globe under U.S. access-to-information laws show that American officials have been worried about Canada's oil-response capabilities for years, dating back to Canada's National Energy Board hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and the proposed Kinder Morgan expansion project.

Some even urged the U.S. to sue the National Energy Board after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was initially barred from participating at the NEB hearings into Kinder Morgan on the grounds that it had missed the deadline to apply for commentator status.

"A catastrophic oil spill would set the Puget Sound cleanup effort back decades, and result in billions of dollars in harm to our economy and environment," the state's Ecology Department officials wrote to Washington Governor Jay Inslee in 2013.

"While other Pacific Rim trading partners benefit, our state will incur many of the risks. In the Salish Sea oil spill risks are being transferred by Canadian industry to Washington state, without sufficient controls."

They also contrasted spill response systems: "B.C. lacks authority over marine waters, and their federal regime is probably a couple of decades behind the system currently in place in Washington State. ... When it is spilled, we are concerned that dilbit oil may be considerably more toxic and damaging, and far more difficult to clean up, than conventional crude from Alaska."

In a briefing to Mr. Inslee before a March, 2013, meeting with U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Keith Taylor, commander of the Pacific Northwest District, officials in the Ecology Department added: "Our industry and port should not have to incur higher cost than their counterparts in Canada because of their weaker standards. We need to have a level playing field with the Port of Vancouver."

The documents also show lawyers working for the Environmental Protection Agency were unhappy about being denied full participant status on the Trans Mountain pipeline hearings a year ago.

The National Energy Board has been holding the hearings on whether to approve Kinder Morgan's proposed $5.4-billion expansion of the pipeline, which would boost capacity between Edmonton and Burnaby to 890,000 barrels a day from 300,000 barrels. The Alberta heavy bitumen would then be shipped in tankers to Asia. The NEB expects to advise cabinet on the project by January, 2016.

Although Trans Mountain would not cross the border, the Environmental Protection Agency predicted in a comment to the NEB last spring that, "nearly tripling the capacity of the current pipeline will have potential air quality impacts on the trans-boundary air shed, including the U.S. portion."

In February, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency was initially denied a chance to make a submission on Trans Mountain because it missed the deadline to apply. But two months later, the NEB gave the agency a lower ranked "commenter" status. Unlike intervenor status, this allows the EPA to send in its views by letter to the NEB hearing, but does not allow the agency to provide sworn evidence and cross-examine other parties. Full-fledged intervenor status was granted to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency said in e-mails that's contrary to the NEB's obligations under Canadian law.

Last Nov. 21, Courtney Weber of the agency's Seattle office wrote to tell other agency lawyers that four Puget Sound native groups had asked the agency to file a motion forcing the NEB to suspend its Kinder Morgan assessment hearings until the board consulted with the agency.

Ms. Weber wrote that the groups were arguing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act requires the NEB to "consult and co-operate" with the EPA.

"I read through the [CEAA] and it appears to me that Earthjustice/Tribes have a good point," Ms. Weber wrote.

"It does appear that NEB should have consulted with the U.S. (and, in turn, EPA and other such agencies) given the scope of the project which will increase tanker traffic in the [Puget] Sound. ... NEB never actually sent out an offer to consult as contemplated by Section 18 of the CEAA."

On Nov. 24, Environmental Protection Agency official Tricia Jefferson in Washington, D.C., wrote of the agency's Pacific Northwest office to say that "the region is contemplating taking action with the NEB beyond filing a comment," and that they would discuss their legal options that day.

But David Allnutt, an EPA spokesman in Washington told The Globe in an interview last week the agency is not considering any further motions to the NEB at this time, although that could change. He said the EPA plans to file its comments with the NEB by the July 23, 2015, deadline.



U.S.'s spill-response fears are a wake-up call

By Gary Mason, Globe and Mail columnist, 28 Apr. 2015


The mayor of Vancouver isn't the only one concerned about Canada's ability to respond to a major oil spill. Turns out, authorities in Washington State have also been raising alarms about the ruinous impact a significant leak could have on the waters of Puget Sound and beyond.

Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail are extraordinary in the level of blunt disapproval aimed at Canadian bodies responsible for responding to spills. And the much-criticized reaction of the Canadian Coast Guard to the bunker fuel discharged in English Bay recently by the vessel MV Marathassa likely only confirmed U.S. officials' worst fears about our spillresponse capabilities.

There is much to marvel at in the correspondence released under a Freedom of Information request. However, one observation made in a briefing note to the state's governor stands out for its jaw-dropping assessment at how our standards stack up against those used by our neighbours to the south: "B.C. lacks authority over marine waters and their federal regime is probably a couple of decades behind the system currently in place in Washington State ..."

A couple of decades? This is not American braggadocio at play here. This is the opinion of officials working in the state's ecology department writing, with great concern, to Governor Jay Inslee in 2013. It goes on.

The briefing note to the governor was direct and urgent, noting that Canadian industry was transferring risk to Washington State because of "weaker standards" in Canada, with the potential result costing "billions of dollars in harm."

"We need to have a level playing field with the Port of Vancouver," the note said.

The Marathassa spill, and now this international criticism, couldn't come at a worse time for Kinder Morgan, which wants to triple the capacity in its pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby. The National Energy Board is currently holding hearings into Kinder Morgan's proposal, which would see a tripling of the number of tankers currently entering Vancouver's harbour, a thought that horrifies Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Premier Christy Clark, meantime, has made developing a world-class marine oil spill response regime one of her five conditions for allowing pipeline development in the province.

If the efforts to clean up the Marathassa leak are any indication, however, Canada is still a long way from fulfilling the Premier's demand in this area.

I don't think we have heard the end of U.S. concern about the threat expanded oil pipelines in B.C. pose to the sanctity of shared Canada/U.S. coastal waters. American authorities know that our oil-spill problem would quickly become their oilspill problem, too. Consequently, they have a huge stake in what is happening here around the development of a comprehensive oil-spill response strategy.

If the Americans have legitimate worries about our ability to react swiftly to any type of marine accident involving oil, we should want to hear about them. I would hope that the B.C. and federal governments would want to know what Washington state officials and others are so concerned about.

Why do they hold our Coast Guard in such low regard?

The Vancouver mayor has been criticized in many quarters for his stand against the Kinder Morgan project. His critics have often scoffed at his suggestions that an oil spill in the harbour would be a disaster for which we are not properly prepared to respond.

As it turns out, he is not the only person who holds that view. Others with knowledge and expertise in this area also believe Canada isn't remotely ready to handle a major oil spill. And that should concern us all.