By R. Bruce Striegler

Little did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau realize in November 2016 as he stood before a crowd of reporters in Vancouver announcing his government’s $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan, that he would ultimately have to declare in May 2018 the government would be spending a further $4.5 billion to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline and all of Kinder Morgan Canada’s core assets.

With construction costs of the new twinned pipeline added, the entire project cost is estimated to rise to well over $13 billion. While the OPP may have given British Columbians a significant boost to Pacific costal environmental protections, they’ve also included an increased capacity Alberta oil pipeline that many do not want.

With so much attention focused on Canada’s Westcoast over oil pipelines and potential oil spills, the federal government moved to implement actions which it believes will reduce environmental dangers and at the same time, focus on restoring marine eco-systems along the coast. When he announced the Ocean Protections Plan, the Prime Minister said, “The $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) unveiled today, will make Canada a world-leader in marine safety and takes a powerful step toward co-management of our coasts with Indigenous and coastal communities.” The plan’s stated priorities were to increase the ability to respond to marine incidents including hazardous ones; preserve and restore marine eco-systems and habitats; as well as strengthen partnerships with Indigenous and coastal communities.

The follow-up to approving the Kinder Morgan Pipeline Expansion also included a crude oil tanker moratorium on British Columbia’s north coast. In May, 2018, the House of Commons passed a bill that regulates oil tankers moving along B.C.’s northern coast. The Act prohibits oil tankers carrying more than 12,500 metric tons of crude oil or persistent oil (things such as fuel oils, partly upgraded bitumen, synthetic crude oils and No. 6 bunker fuel) from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border. Transporting this oil between tankers or from ports or marine terminal will also not be permitted. The tanker ban immediately found praise from environmental groups, and condemnation from others, including some First Nations engaged in a First Nations-led effort to construct the Eagle Spirit “energy corridor” from Alberta to tidewater in Northern B.C. The Eagle Spirit Energy Group says the government has no business telling it what it can do in its territories and that the decision to enact legislation will harm indigenous economic development. (see subsequent article)

OPP increases response times in search and rescue incidents, takes on derelict vessels

OPP is a complex undertaking, and first steps to implement the plan follow a year of significant consultation, involves dozens of local organizations and a number of federal departments. In a June 2017 sequel announcement, Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc declared a $108.1 million expenditure over five years for the Canadian Coast Guard to establish seven new lifeboat stations, at Victoria, Hartley Bay, Port Renfrew and Nootka Sound near Gold River, plus three in Newfoundland and Labrador. The $108.1 million investment over five years with ongoing funding of $12.2 million will staff 56 new positions to increase response times in search and rescue or hazardous incidents. The stations will address needs and identified gaps in service for ocean rescue areas in areas of marine traffic growth. Lifeboat station construction is scheduled to begin this summer.

Another $6.85 million over five years will be used to remove derelict boats and educate boaters to prevent vessels from being discarded. “Dealing with problem vessels and structures can be highly complex due to the mix of provincial ownership of land, federal jurisdiction over navigation and shipping and sometimes conflicting federal and provincial laws,” says a B.C. Provincial guide on the subject. The announcement of the Abandoned Boats Program comes after a long history of advocacy from numerous provincial organizations that have worked for years to get the attention of the Federal Government to fund and support the clean-up of discarded and abandoned vessels of all sizes along the 25,725 kilometres, and 40,000 islands along British Columbia’s coast. A 2014 report prepared for Transport Canada by a B.C.-based consulting firm identifies 147 derelict vessels located in the Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast and B.C.’s Lower Mainland. Another report for Transport Canada indicates more than 600 of these hazardous sites exist across Canada. The federal government’s new Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act can impose fines on individuals who abandon a boat up to $300,000, and a six-month jail term, while corporations can be fined as much as $6 million.

Although a moot point now, LeBlanc said at the time, the federal funding of the announced programs will be allocated whether or not the Trans Mountain Expansion Project moves forward. “The investments we’ve made are not contingent on one particular natural resource project. They are done after careful analysis, including scientific analysis, of what are the best marine protections,” LeBlanc said. He said a separate $1.4 billion would be used to “rehabilitate” the federal fisheries department and Canadian Coast Guard after years of cuts. The boost includes a 15 per cent increase in coast guard staffing within the next two years, and upgrading fleets, communications equipment and technology. “No longer will our scientists be working under leaky roofs or using dial-up Internet and no longer will our coast guard staff have to go on vessels that haven’t been properly maintained.”

Habitat rehabilitation for salmon and First Nations participation in monitoring conditions for killer whales

The $75 million Coastal Restoration Fund supports projects that will conserve and protect the overall health of the northern Pacific Ocean, including rebuilding habitat for species at risk, such as the southern resident killer whale. The investment will help to rehabilitate some of British Columbia’s most important marine ecosystems and address threats to marine species by focusing on historically degraded areas and supporting projects that contribute to coastal restoration.

Pilot programs are being launched for the Enhanced Maritime Situational Awareness initiative on B.C.’s North Coast, investing in measures to reduce the underwater noise impacting southern resident killer whales. Starting fall 2018 until fall 2019, the Haida and Gitga’at Nations are the first of up to nine communities that will host pilot versions of the new system across Canada’s three coasts. The two First Nations will work with Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and other federal departments on the projects. Approved 2018 Budget funding allows the Government to take the next steps, addressing the impacts of human activities that are threatening endangered whales. The system will provide coastal partners, including Indigenous peoples, provincial governments and scientific non-governmental organizations, with essential maritime information, including near real-time data on ship traffic.

Minister LeBlanc announced $9.1-million to develop technology which could detect the presence of orcas in southern B.C. waters, also allocating $3.1 million for underwater noise testing. The University of Victoria will receive nearly $1 million to examine behaviour and vulnerability of southern resident killer whales and their prey. Only 76 of the whales remain in existence, and biologists say serious issues with food abundance, pollution and marine traffic have significantly impacted the species’ ability to reproduce.

President of Haida Nation, kil tlaats ‘gaa Peter Lantin, said the initiative gives access to the best coastal marine information available today. “We’ll be aware of all shipping traffic in near real-time, be able to make informed decisions if there is a crisis or accident and better plan for the future; such as, keeping vessels well offshore. By incorporating our Nation’s deep ocean knowledge into the system, all users in the future will have a better understanding of Haida Gwaii and the reasons we insist on its protection,” Lantin said.

A major Westcoast conservation organization responds to OPP 

Misty MacDuffee, biologist and program director, Wild Salmon Program at Raincoast Conservation Foundation tells Canadian Sailings, “The Ocean Protection Plan has its strengths and weaknesses.  On one hand, it is a long overdue investment in the restoration of some severely degraded salmon habitats – habitats that are the basis for culturally and economically important B.C. fisheries. It further provides funding to begin addressing derelict vessels that litter the coast. It also invests in non-governmental research that is important to better understand coastal ecosystems.” Ms. MacDuffee notes that the value in these pursuits is that they inform decisions about how to manage ecosystems and economies differently in the future. “This is where the OPP comes up short. The OPP is being implemented, in great part, to reassure British Columbians that more ships and oil tankers can safely transit coastal waters.”

“In terms of marine oil spills, recovery of more than 10-15 percent of spilled oil is highly unlikely, especially with diluted bitumen,” (the Alberta oil referred to within the industry as “dilbit’). It is worth noting that the recovery of dilbit is one of the points of sharp controversy and often disagreement between environmentalists, industry and science. MacDuffee continues, saying “Spill response then turns to dispersants like Corexit, a product raising growing concern regarding its significant effects on the humans and animals exposed to it.” While countries like the U.K. and some within the European Union have banned Corexit, it was recently approved for use in Canada and appears to be central in the federal government’s spill response plan despite reliable knowledge on the full extent of its toxicity.

In response to the question ‘Does the OPP actually increase protection on the Pacific coast?’ MacDuffee responds, saying, “The OPP will not reduce current threats to species and ecosystems, and this is what at-risk, vulnerable species from whales to salmon need:  threat reduction.” She continued, adding that the plan does not reduce threats to southern resident killer whales, the B.C. coast’s most revered, iconic and critically endangered group of marine mammals. “If the federal government was committed to a future where healthy ecosystems and habitats served as the basis for a strong economy and vibrant communities, true ocean protection would look very different.”

Shipping industry independent research group says OPP will take collaboration to implement

Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping is an independent research centre that promotes safe and sustainable marine shipping in Canada. Seed funding to establish the organization in 2015 came through three equal contributions of $3.7 million from Transport Canada, the Government of Alberta (Alberta Energy) and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). When contacted by Canadian Sailings asking how the organization viewed OPP, Executive Director Peter Ellis says, “The Oceans Protection Plan is a wide-ranging plan which will enhance the safeguarding and stewardship of Canada’s oceans and coastlines. It is the first initiative of such magnitude. It is a long-term plan with many initiatives scaled to be implemented over a five-year time frame. It will take time, consultation and collaboration to move this large amount of programme.” Mr. Ellis declined to speculate what might happen to this large-scale program in the event that the Kinder Morgan project does not proceed as planned.

Clear Seas Centre commissioned a 2016 Angus Reid Institute poll on Canadian’s views towards marine shipping. Asked what kind of overall safety rating they would give to the shipping industry and its activities, a large majority of Canadians opt for safe – 21 percent say “very safe” while the bulk (73 percent) choose “generally safe”. The rest – only seven percent – view the Canadian shipping industry as generally or very unsafe. When it comes to risks associated with shipping in Canadian waters, oil or fuel spills top the list, while the next tier of anxieties largely consist of the potential consequences of shipping petroleum products – issues such as water pollution, endangering marine life and fisheries depletion.

While oil spills’ top the ranking on Canadians’ list of shipping safety concerns, it is accompanied by an over-estimation on the part of the public regarding the frequency of such spills. Asked to estimate how many “major” oil spills have occurred in Canadian waters in the past 10 years, roughly equal numbers (approximately three-in-ten) guessed “one or two”, “three to five”, or “six or more” major spills. One-in-seven (14 percent) opted for the correct answer: no major oil spill has occurred in Canada in the last decade. While it’s a matter of public record that several smaller spills and fuel leaks of less than 700 tonnes have occurred, the survey question specifically asked about (and briefly defined) major oil spills.

Oceans Protection Plan includes modernizing oil spill response for Canadian Coast Guard

In January 2018, the Canadian Coast Guard issued Requests for Proposals for new spill response equipment for use on its marine vessels.  The equipment will be used to contain and remove oil and other contaminants from the water in the case of a spill, and will be the first equipment acquired under the Environmental Response Equipment Modernization Initiative of OPP. The equipment will include curtain booms, high-speed sweep systems, and small, portable multi-cassette skimmers, will bring the Coast Guard “in line with and beyond current standards” regarding environmental spill response.

In mid-March, Vancouver-based Aqua-Guard Spill Response Inc. was awarded the first contract under the program; a $1.2 million deal to supply twenty-three oil skimming systems to four key regional bases with additional systems to be supplied coast to coast over the course of the next three years. Nigel Bennett, co-founder and principal of Aqua-Guard tells Canadian Sailings, “I formed the company in 1992; we design and manufacture state-of-the art oil spill response equipment for the global market, now having supplied equipment to about 104 countries around the world.”

Bennett explains how he became involved in the field of oil spill response, “I worked for my father’s company for ten years, a consulting company that did oil spill emergency response planning around the world, and had developed national response plans for nine countries at that time. In 1992, I formed Aqua-Guard, where we focussed on the equipment side of the business.” Bennett says that his contacts from earlier days began coming to Aqua-Guard, and the company began to flourish internationally. The business has since established solid partnerships with major petroleum companies and government organizations world-wide, and the patented RBS TRITON oil skimming technology has been involved in combatting most of the world`s major oil spills in recent history. In 1994, the company took its skimmer prototype to a trade show in Seattle, where they made contact with a company that conducted a major share of the Valdez spill clean-up. “They said they could sell these units, and became our distributor.” Shortly after, Aqua-Guard received a contract to supply over 30 skimmers to the Alyeska Trans Alaska Pipeline System, and Bennett says, “That got us going.” Today, Aqua-Guard manufactures and sells a dozen different models with widely varying capacity volumes, as well as providing full on-site training and commissioning services to clients anywhere in the world.