Marven Robinson, a Councillor with the Gitga’at Nation and renowned guide, told me of a group of Europeans he recently guided into the Great Bear Rainforest. After much walking through the bush and warnings to the group that it was late in the season, Robinson successfully made one last attempt to find what they were looking for: a Spirit Bear.

“They just went nuts,” he said. “People were crying… they said [the government] must be crazy [to entertain the idea of bringing oil tankers through here].”

The potentially devastating consequences of an oil spill on our coast or into a major river are obvious to most, so companies like Enbridge and Kinder Morgan as well as the federal and provincial governments want British Columbians to feel confident that their treasured waterways will be protected.

But how much protection is actually on offer? And more importantly, how much protection is physically even possible? Recent news coverage has started uncovering some answers:

Three phrases duke it out

There are three very different phrases currently being used to describe the kinds of oil spill protection on offer:

1. World-class
“World-class” is the ambiguous phrase used by the federal government (for example, in its plans for a “world-class tanker safety system”). It’s also the phrase most often used by oil company proponents like Enbridge – presumably because it’s the lowest bar that can be set that still sounds impressive.

2. World-leading
World-leading” is the phrase used in the original announcement of B.C.’s five conditions for new heavy oil plans. Premier Clark and B.C.’s Minister of Environment have repeatedly echoed this phrase. Last Friday on Power and Politics, Clark said:

“We know where we want to get to – that’s the world’s best spill response.”

Taken literally, world-leading is more stringent than world-class. The trouble is that best-in-the-world is still grossly inadequate when it comes to marine oil spills. Shovels and buckets, anyone? In Sunday’s Times Colonist Iain Hunter nicely quotes a 2003 U.S. National Academy of Sciences panel: “No current cleanup methods remove more than a small fraction of oil spilled in marine waters.”

3. Effective
While politicians have stuck to the more ambiguous phrases world-class and world-leading in public statements, the B.C. government provided much needed clarity during the Enbridge joint review panel hearings. “The goal is effective response,” said B.C. senior legal counsel Christopher Jones during final oral arguments this past June. Indeed, the phrase “effective” is used 62 times in the province’s final written argument – the phrase “world-leading” isn’t used at all and “world-class” is only used in reference to Enbridge’s claims to that effect.

The standard of effective response aligns with common-sense. Who cares if something is world-leading if it doesn’t actually work?

The province’s Enbridge argument doesn’t explicitly define effective response, but it’s strongly implied that you get a large percentage of the oil back in a timely manner while avoiding significant adverse effects on the environment.

Use Twitter to ask Premier Christy Clark to clarify her standard

.@christyclarkBC pls clarify: is your oil spill standard EFFECTIVE or “world-leading”? It’s gotta work right? #bcpoli

Effective response isn’t always possible
This uncomfortable truth was summarized nicely by the Globe’s Justine Hunter on CBC’s Early Edition:

“So what you’ve got is a legal document about 100 pages long submitted on behalf of the province that says oil spill response must be effective, not world-leading or world-class, whatever those things mean, but effective, which means you can actually fix it. And that same report says that in many cases that would be impossible.”

That’s right. The province’s Enbridge argument acknowledges (among other things):

  • “For most open ocean spills, no oil from a spill is recovered; the oil remains in the environment.”
  • “There are significant periods [68.5% of the time in the open waters of the north coast in fall and winter] during which spill response will be impossible or severely constrained.”
  • [Enbridge] acknowledges that it knows of no techniques to effectively remove dissolved oil from the water column.”

What we should expect from our Premier
Premier Clark should be clear with British Columbians about what her standard is for oil spill response. Is it “world-leading” or is it effective? How much protection is on offer? If it’s not effective, that means the Premier must be OK with ineffective response in some scenarios: a tough call she might have to make but one she should be transparent about. And more importantly, how much protection is physically even possible? How often should British Columbians expect ineffective oil spill response if Enbridge is allowed to bring tankers through the home of the Spirit Bear or if Kinder Morgan is allowed to bring upwards of 400 tankers per year through the Salish Sea?

This week, we’re told to expect a new government report on oil spill response. I hope the report and media coverage of it helps bring some answers.