PM Harper seems to have made a nose stretcher. Oil tankers off the BC coast are not monitored that closely because our Coast Guard lacks the equipment. Funny no one said this earlier.

Exclusive: Canada's ability to track tankers in B.C. exclusion zone limited (external - login to view)

Exclusive: Canada's ability to track tankers in B.C. exclusion zone limited

By Andrew Mayeda, Postmedia News February 7, 2011

Map of the west coast tanker exclusion zone off B.C.

Photograph by: Postmedia News, Graphic

OTTAWA Canadian authorities have no reliable way of tracking vessels that pass through a zone off the B.C. coast meant to keep out oil tankers, despite reassurances by the Harper government that the zone is strictly monitored, Postmedia News has learned.

The Tanker Exclusion Zone was established in 1988 under a non-binding agreement between the Canadian and U.S. coast guards and the U.S. tanker industry. It was designed to lower the risk of an oil tanker running aground off the coast of British Columbia.

The zone, which runs from southern Alaska to the southern tip of Vancouver Island, applies to tankers carrying oil from the Trans-

Alaska pipeline to ports along the U.S. west coast.

The Harper government insists the exclusion zone is closely policed. "That exclusion zone, which is closely monitored and strictly enforced, makes sure that no oil tanker traffic comes down the inside passage," Transport Minister Chuck Strahl told the House of Commons in December.

But the Canadian Coast Guard concedes that its radar systems can only monitor tanker traffic in the southern portion of the zone, as tankers approach the Juan de Fuca strait between Vancouver Island and Washington state. On average, one tanker loaded with crude oil enters the strait every day. The coast guard can also identify vessels through signals sent by the vessels through an onboard transponder, but the system also has a limited range.

The coast guard must therefore rely heavily on the tanker industry to accurately report the whereabouts of their vessels. A spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to which the coast guard reports, said the government has no "historical" data on the number of tankers that have entered the zone.

"We think the exclusion zone is a good idea, but we don't think it's enough," said Jennifer Lash, executive director of Living Oceans Society, an environmental group in B.C. that has been calling for a formal moratorium on tanker traffic off the province's coast. "Because it's voluntary, there are no consequences. It's not really something that's monitored."

Tanker traffic along the B.C. coast is expected to increase as energy producers in Canada look to ship more oil and gas to China and other growing Asian markets. Calgary-based Enbridge has proposed a $5.5-billion plan to build two pipelines that would carry bitumen from the Alberta oilsands to a port in Kitimat, B.C.

The project has revived the debate over a moratorium on oil and gas activities along the B.C. coast established in 1972 by the federal government under Pierre Trudeau. In 2009, the Harper government quietly affirmed that the ban doesn't apply to tanker traffic, despite widespread assumptions to the contrary. Enbridge notes that the exclusion zone won't apply to tankers entering or leaving Kitimat.

The Conservatives have resisted pressure from opposition MPs and environmentalists to give the voluntary ban some teeth. The opposition parties teamed up in December to pass an NDP motion calling on the government to legislate a ban on tankers near the rich ecosystem of Haida Gwaii, formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands. Liberal MP Joyce Murray has tabled a private-member's bill that would impose such a ban.

Government officials said in a statement that all vessels must contact the coast guard 96 hours before entering Canadian waters. Vessels must provide information about their ship, as well as their cargo and destination. They must report any safety deficiencies 24 hours before entering Canadian waters.

The coast guard reports deficiencies to Transport Canada, which administers the exclusion zone. Transport officials refuse entry to any vessel that "could pose a risk to Canadian waters," the statement said.

But environmentalists say the government hasn't adequately prepared for the possibility of a damaged tanker drifting ashore and unleashing a major oil spill. Drift modelling conducted by the government suggests the exclusion zone would have to be pushed farther offshore to prevent such a disaster.

Depending on the severity of the weather and the location of the tanker, rescue tugs might not be able to reach the tanker in time, said Lash, of Living Oceans.