For the last week my twitter feed has been filled with discussions about the grounding of the Nathan E Stewart and the ensuing diesel spill into the fragile ecosystem of Athlone Island. Now the activist community, never willing to let a tragedy go to waste, has jumped on this to reinforce their demand for a renewed tanker ban off the West Coast. To add a bit of flavour to their demands, some have included a demand that the tanker ban include a ban on barge traffic. As I have pointed out numerous times, a tanker ban would have had no effect on this spill as barges aren’t covered. As for the barge ban, well more on that below. Rather than harping on those topics, however, I am going to use the majority of this blog post to make a plea for a reasonable discussion about our spill response capabilities in the central coast. Before I do that let’s talk about barge bans.
As I have had to point out numerous times on Twitter; Bella Bella is a coastal community with no road links to the mainland. You get there by air or by sea. As pointed out by Tom Fletcher Bella Bella gets its electricity from the former Ocean Falls pulp and paper mill backed up by diesel generators. Now where do those generators get their diesel from? You guessed it: coastal fuel barges. The same means by which the vehicles in the community get their refined gasoline and the cooking stoves get their naphtha. If one were to ban fuel barges the community would almost immediately cease to be tenable. The dock would close as the fishing/crabbing ships would not have any fuel to operate. The airport would close because the aviation fuel used at the airport comes via tanker. The back-up generators would have no fuel so come winter-time when the power line to Ocean Falls went down there would be no power. Heck even the chainsaws most people use to cut firewood would lack the fuel to allow them to operate.
Now I, more than most, understand the risk associated with coastal barges running up and down our coastline. I highlighted the problem almost two years ago in my blog when I wrote:
From a risk perspective, we have been trained to fear oil tankers even though they are highly regulated and have strict maintenance/piloting/tugboat requirements. Meanwhile, we are essentially oblivious to all those container ships travelling without tugs through our “narrow and dangerous” straits. Even more frightening are all those barges being towed along the coast. Few people ask how coastal BC communities get their fuel supplies? Well most are supplied by barges towed to their destinations by tugs. According to the spill response study 48 billion liters a year of fuels are transported by barge in coastal BC. Much of this material is considered “non-persistent” as it represents refined fuels that do not last as long in the environment once spilled. Lack of persistence, does not, however, mean risk-free. That lack of persistence must be tempered by the fact that these barges operate in inshore waters close to shore, so spills are more likely to migrate to land and cause damage to marine and coastal ecosystems. For volume comparisons, the biggest barges can carry 8 to 21 million liters of fuel.
Now that I’ve addressed the ridiculousness of a barge ban let’s get to the meat of this issue: oil spill response times. The biggest complaint about this spill has been the relatively slow response time. West Coast Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) is the private company with the responsibility to address oil spills on the BC Coast. Following the sinking, WCMRC sent a large team from their nearest response base (Prince Rupert) as well as a local contractors from a closer base in Shearwater (three miles from Bella Bella). Now Prince Rupert is over 300 kms north of Bella Bella and the crew from Shearwater simply lacked the equipment to mount a full-on oil spill response for a spill of that volume. The result was a loss of significant volumes of diesel from the tug’s onboard fuel supplies. Now that the WCMRC crew is on hand they are working to off-load as much of that diesel as is possible and the spill is mostly contained, but in the meantime it is likely that a local clam fishery has been damaged and there are clear indications of ecological damage.
The question that is being asked is: why the relatively slow response? The simply answer is geography. The British Columbia coastline is immense, including inlets and islands it exceeds 25,000 kilometers. Now consider that spill response times assume that response ships will travel at 6 knots (approximately 11 km/hr) and you see the challenge faced by first responders. According to the 2013 West Coast Spill Response Study the current goal for a spill of over 2500 tonnes in that part of the coast is that a response team be on hand within 72 hours. 72 hours is a long time to wait when it comes to containing an oil spill and a lot of people have demanded that we do better, but no one has explained how that might happen.
The problem that many of the armchair quarterbacks out there don’t seem to understand is that oil spill response is an expensive affair. You need to stockpile expensive material in caches available for the first responders and then you need crews and equipment on standby for when the inevitable spill occurs. Right now that funding comes entirely from industry under a “polluter pays principle” where the operators of commercial ships pay into a fund to allow for the operation of WCMRC. I have said again and again, you only get the quality of service that you are willing to pay for; and in spill response this 72 hour response time is what people have been willing to pay for. You want a faster response? Then under the current system that means paying for it in the form of higher fuel and food prices in coastal communities.
Ultimately a “world class oil spill response” is only going to happen in the central coast if the money is there. With the exception of immediately after spills like the Nathan E Stewart, the coastal communities have not been clamoring to pay for increased spill response (and the ensuing increase in costs of living). As for the world class oil spill response associated with the pipelines, those resources are going to go where the models suggest the ships are going to travel. So if the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain expansion occurs that would be the south coast while the Northern Gateway would result in a drive to ensure adequate supplies in the north coast. None of these plans will likely do anything about the central coast because the volume of transport is simply not there.
The only way the central coast sees improved oil spill response is if one of our levels of government decides to ante up, because a polluter pays system will never have enough money to provide a world class oil spill response over the entire central coast. The coastline is too long, the population centers too dispersed and the volumes transported are not sufficient to pay for a better service.
When I started writing this blog post I was of the opinion that this was a chicken and egg situation. You aren’t going to get a world-class oil spill response until you increase the shipping volume and you aren’t going to increase shipping volume until one or more of these major projects is approved. Now this is very true for the north and south coasts, but in my research I have come to recognize that, as suggested above, neither scenario addresses the central coast and that is where I think it is time for our two senior levels of government to get involved. The movement of vessels in Canada’s inshore waters is regulated by Transport Canada and as a consequence I think that both the Feds and the Province should be kicking in to address the holes in the current system. While I strongly approve of the concept of polluter pays I think that this cannot be the only funding mechanism for oil spill response on the west coast.
Think of this from a more familiar perspective. We don’t demand that shop-keepers in dangerous neighbourhoods pay for their own policing nor do we expect individual shop-owners to pay for on-call fire-fighting crews. Rather we accept that as communities, provinces and a country that we share the burden. The cost of maintaining oil spill response capabilities in the central coast should not be placed solely on the consumers in those communities (through pass-on charges associated with WCMRC fees). Rather, those fees should be supplemented by government fees to address shortfalls in the central coast.
The best analogy I can think of is the BC Ferries system. BC Ferries, if it relied only on user fees, would operate solely on the short southern coastal routes. However, our government recognizes the need for its service on lesser-traveled routes and provides supplemental funds to cover operational costs. In a similar vein, I would suggest that our provincial and federal governments cough up a subsidy to improve spill response capabilities in the central coast. Polluter pays only works so well and in the case of spill response paying for a clean-up after the fact does nothing to address the damage that could be contained if only spill response capabilities were in place. It is time our senior levels of government stepped up to the plate and took on the responsibilities that the constitution places in their hands: to protect our coast. That means providing a governmental subsidy to top up the quality of our oil spill response capabilities in the central coastal region because irrespective of whether there is a tanker ban or a single pipeline built the central coast is going to be under-serviced by oil spill response capabilities if direct users are the only ones covering the costs of the program.