New documents from B.C.’s Environment ministry — briefing incoming Minister Mary Polak — reveal B.C. is woefully unprepared to respond to even a moderate oil spill. The sorry state of oil spill response capacity in B.C. has been widely known for some time, and the Ministry’s comments give fresh life to this old theme.

Looming large over the issue are two big heavy oil pipeline and tanker proposals for B.C.’s coast — Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain — and Premier Clark’s deliberately ambiguous five conditions for these types of projects, two of which are all about dealing with oil spills.

However ambiguous Clark’s conditions seemed when they were first announced last August, in recent months her government has become increasingly precise about what they mean for companies hoping to ship more oil off our coast. The watershed document, providing most of the clarity, is the B.C. government’s final argument to the federal panel currently reviewing Enbridge’s plan.

Media coverage of B.C.’s final argument to the joint review panel reviewing the Enbridge project understandably focused on its conclusion: Enbridge failed to make their case and B.C. doesn’t think the project should be approved as proposed. But beyond that, not much has been written.

Here are six things you should know about B.C.’s official position on heavy oil proposals, as revealed in the government’s final argument to the Enbridge JRP:

  1. World-leading response means effective response: The Province has long stated it wants companies to prove “world-leading” or “world-class” oil spill response, prevention and recovery measures.  Those phrases sound nice but many have wondered what they actually mean. B.C.’s final argument clarifies this by saying that “the goal is effective response [to oil spills],” using the word “effective” 62 times. Though never explicitly stated, effective response is strongly implied to mean the ability to avoid significant adverse effects in any given spill scenario, which sounds admirably like common sense.
  2. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do: The Province’s submission provides official recognition that effective response isn’t actually possible in many cases, for example citing an Enbridge witness they state: “With respect to…most open ocean spills, no oil from a spill is recovered; the oil remains in the environment,” and stating themselves that “…there are significant periods of time [68.5% of the time during Fall/Winter in the “Open Water Area”] during which spill response will be impossible or severely constrained…”
  3. Where effective response is technically possible, the Province sets a very high bar: The Province insists that proponents must prove their ability to effectively respond to oil spills all along a project’s route before a certificate is granted. “Trust us isn’t good enough,” they say. This will be a difficult bar for companies to clear as they race to achieve approval on shortened federal timelines.
  4. Bitumen poses special risks: That the Province is treating bitumen (heavy oil) differently isn’t new — the whole premise of the Province’s five conditions is that heavy oil poses special risks because it can sink into the water column or all the way to the riverbed or seabed — but the submission makes these risks crystal clear. “[Enbridge] acknowledges that it knows of no techniques to effectively remove dissolved oil from the water column,” the government says, adding: “[Enbridge] acknowledges that the fraction of the total oil volume that sinks can exceed 50%,” and “recovery and mitigation options for sunken oils [e.g. weathered bitumen] are limited.”
  5. There are economic costs: The Province’s submission provides official recognition that heavy oil export projects come with economic costs, which the government says Enbridge downplayed. B.C. points out that plans like Enbridge’s or Kinder Morgan’s would result in increased cost to Canadian refiners — and, by extension, to Canadian consumers — and could result in additional costs incurred by government.
  6. Public process is over: The Province notes that there will be “no subsequent public process in which [any changes made by Enbridge] can be probed and tested.” This is why we continue to feel that the Province’s answer of no to Enbridge is solid; we don’t think it’s likely the Province would go to such great lengths to refuse Enbridge during a public process and then approve the project behind closed doors.

Though the rhetoric of Premier Clark’s government continues to suggest openness to the idea of shipping more heavy oil off our coast, these six elements of their final argument to the Enbridge JRP — if maintained — suggest projects like Northern Gateway or Trans Mountain are increasingly far-fetched.

The more public attention these laudable elements of B.C.’s final argument get, the more difficult it will be for Premier Clark to backtrack on any one of them, should she so desire.