Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to roll out a new environmental protection regime for British Columbia's coast as early as Monday. It is his answer to the province's demand for a "world-leading marine spill response" plan, which is currently the biggest sticking point in gaining the B.C. government's approval for new heavy-oil pipelines.
The province has now laid out the specifics of what it wants in that plan, ranging from a fleet of salvage tugs to a new Coast Guard station.
Over the past six months, Ottawa and Victoria have been discussing the details of what will get the province to Yes. To close the gap between existing marine protection on the coast, and what B.C. says is needed, will require the federal government to make major regulatory changes and to spend tens of millions of dollars on new infrastructure, training and personnel.
The federal Liberals have promised action on coastal protection for more than a year, but the timing of this announcement seems calibrated to pave the way for a decision on whether to approve the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to the coast. Mr. Trudeau will face strong opposition in B.C. to approval, from environmentalists, municipal leaders and First Nations. He would prefer to have Premier Christy Clark, at least, onside.
The province has produced a list of 11 deficiencies it wants remedied. The list includes:
Legislation to make escort tugs for all tankers calling in B.C. ports mandatory, for the purposes of emergency rescue and salvage; three new salvage tugs, at a cost of between $25-million and $50-million apiece, to be based in Port Renfrew, Kitimat and Vancouver; a new Coast Guard station in Prince Rupert at an estimated cost in excess of $6-million, with operational costs estimated at $700,000 per year for a base with 12 crew.
The list also calls for a marine training "centre for excellence" that would emphasize training opportunities for First Nations.
These are some of the markers that the federal plan can be measured against.
If Ottawa delivers, B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said in an interview, this could allow the province to remove what is currently deemed the provincial government's biggest impediment to accepting the Kinder Morgan expansion plan.
"If they have filled all the gaps we have identified, then arguably they have met the condition with respect to marine spill response, but it doesn't stop there," she said in an interview. "We have to be sure we continuously evaluate it. … It might not be considered world-leading 10 years from now."
She hastened to add that it's not just about Kinder Morgan, which the federal cabinet must reject or approve by December. "We have worked hard to impress upon them this isn't just about Kinder Morgan, this is about protecting our coast, and we just don't have the resources to do that now."
Unfortunately, the plan is being rolled out just weeks after an oil spill off a remote section of the central coast that has despoiled the traditional marine harvesting areas of the Heiltsuk people. The sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart is a timely reminder that B.C.'s coast is vulnerable, not just to potential disasters involving big oil tankers, but in the everyday travel of vessels of all classes. It offers a yardstick to determine if B.C.'s proposals, and the federal government's response, would protect the challenging coastline.
The province also has included several measures aimed at prevention of spills, and it is pointing to a state-of-the-art vessel tracking system at the Port of Nanaimo as a model for communities and harbours up and down the coast.
Captain Edward Dahlgren, Nanaimo Port Authority harbour master, describes the system as a "Star Trek-ish" dashboard he uses to manage an average of 350 deep-sea vessels each year as well as heavy traffic with float planes, barges, log booms, ferries and pleasure craft. A key feature is the system's ability to automatically alert both the port and individual ships if they are heading into danger.
The B.C.-developed software layers weather, hydrographic charts, radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System) data. Guard zones are imbedded – not just on fixed points, but around ships at anchor and ferries, triggering warnings to both the harbour master and the vessels themselves.
"Quite frankly, we wonder how we managed the harbour before," he said.
Capt. Dahlgren said the software has the potential to transform the coast: "We have the ability to put the light [version of the] system in every First Nations community." It would allow coastal communities to take an active role in monitoring vessel traffic, and would also allow them to designate protected areas.
Ms. Polak said she'd like to see that technology adopted along the coast. "If you think about what's just happened in Bella Bella, the difficulty they are having now with trying to clean up after the fact. … A lot of this is about shifting the focus so that you are paying more attention to preventing something becoming a disaster in the first place."
If it is practical to do so now, it's a shame it was not done earlier. The package that is expected to be rolled out this week, however, seems geared to persuade British Columbians to accept a Kinder Morgan expansion that will be deemed to be in the national interest. Timing is everything in politics.