Saturday, March 23, 2013

About that tanker safety thing ...

My good friend and colleague was asked by a journalist for a comment on the Joe Oliver/Denis Lebel news conference held last week in Vancouver. I have to admit, listening to them left me feeling that they had very little respect for the people they represent. So Dave produced this as his comment. Unedited:

I promised Laila Yuile that I would give her my take on the propaganda offered by investment banker, Joe Oliver, currently the Minister of Natural Resources in Harper's government.

Before I go on, I think you should first take a look at Chris Montgomery's maritime blog where she makes one very solid point - new rules mean nothing if they are enforced with the same vigour as the ones currently in place. Transport Canada and other agencies involved in maritime safety in Canada have been nothing, if not pitiful, in the pursuit of regulatory stringency. Further, there is an undercurrent of "big bucks gets the nod" when it comes to exemptions and relaxation of codified regulations.

Gary Mason also weighed in, suggesting that no amount of regulatory change or stiffening will change what is likely to become known as the "failed Northern Gateway pipeline". Maybe so, but there is this consistent attempt to conflate the overland pipeline issue with the maritime shipping concern. Even Enbridge links the two when, in fact, (and by their own admission), they are distinctly separate items.

In preparation for the roll-out of Oliver's little speech in front of Vancouver Harbour, Transport Canada went to work and posted two items on tanker safety in January of this year. It worth taking note of this and this. It's also worth taking note of the things Oliver said he would be changing.

An expert panel. As Chris Montgomery pointed out, the chairman appointed is likely as good as we're going to get. It certainly could have been worse. The other two "experts" are not professional seafarers. I would like to hear what, precisely, they are "expert" in dealing with. Not that it matters. Harper's history in dealing with "experts" is to dismiss or ignore anything they have to say and, if they go public with information inconvenient to the Harper agenda, to smear them.

The two pilot rule. This is not new. This already exists for laden tankers in BC coast waters making the transit from Vancouver harbour to the Victoria pilot station. Once both pilots have been disembarked at the Victoria waterfront there is nothing, save a good passage plan and precise execution, to prevent a foreign-flagged tanker, laden with diluted bitumen from the Kinder-Morgan pipeline, from careening into Race Rocks, Sherringham Point, or some other prominotory not in the current vocabulary of Joe Oliver or Denis Lebel. Likewise, the trip out of Douglas Channel would involve disembarking pilots at the limits of mandatory pilotage and releasing the escort tugs wherein a foreign-flagged ship finds itself in Hecate Strait facing the Queen Charlotte Islands in some of the worst weather on the planet.

Increased tanker inspections. Nice try. The last federal budget and its dodgy implementation bill plundered Transport Canada of inspectors. The truth is, unless there is an infusion of money and highly-skilled people into Transport Canada increased inspection frequency will either be impossible or it will come at the expense of Port State Control inspections of other cargo ship types, all of which can be just as dangerous as a crude oil tanker. The emphasis on "double hulls" is ludicrous. Tankers without double hulls are already forbidden entry into North American ports. Notwithstanding, double-hulls have developed some of their own problems which may make the whole effort quite pointless.

Increase in the National Aerial Surveillance Program to monitor shipping. Who are these two trying to kid? It's a great program to gather intelligence and to spot pollution once it's already happened but it won't for one second prevent an oil spill due to a ship running aground, breaking up in heavy weather, or becoming involved in a collision. Keep in mind that with budget cuts to the Canadian Forces, the RCAF has reduced operations tempo and a good deal of the NASP was conducted by Aurora and Arcturus long-range maritime patrol aircraft carrying out sovereignty flights. Those are happening less often which means the Oliver/Lebel dog and pony show is in fact nothing but numbers manipulation.

Scientific research on non-conventional petroleum products like bitumen. Well now, a lot of that research has already been done. Right up to the point where the Harper government cut the staff of the research group from 45 to 15. The government has the research of the group led by Merv Fingas but the Harper government dismissed it - not convenient for the narrative to which they adhere. So, is Oliver planning on listening to qualified chemists, physicists and oceanographers or are they going to buy into the opinions of Enbridge's hired biologist?

More ports, including Kitimat, designated for traffic control measures. OK. So there will be traffic separation schemes. Traffic control from Vessel Traffic Service stations is advisory. The truth is, unless there is a huge amount of money spent on shore based radar covering the entire inside passage, safety is not going to be enhanced. Current VTS on the central coast relies on ships accurately providing their position at check-in points and estimating the time of arrival at the next one. The VTS station is blind. Reliance on automated information systems providing a ship's course, speed and position is foolhardy. Such systems are time-late and do not present a current surface picture.

Modern navigation systems and modified aids to navigation. That's nice. It's also not new. Canada was well behind other countries in producing digital charts to the S-57 IHO standard. This was particularly the case with Douglas Channel where charts did not meet the standard for electronic chart display and information systems. That's being corrected so how this is a new initiative is something of a mystery. As far as requiring arriving ships to possess the digital technology, they already do. The addition of the necessary buoys, lights, etc. to ensure the route is properly marked is not new; The fact that the Canadian Coast Guard is now going to have to install them is. Up to this point, Enbridge was going to be required to pay for upgrades to nav aids in Douglas Channel. Must be nice to have your old banker buddies in a cabinet chair.

The amendments to oil terminal safety regulations are so long overdue as to be laughable. TERMPOL is out of date by over a decade. Requiring terminals to submit spill plans as a regulatory requirement has been asked of this government since it came to office. They have, up to now, done nothing. Administrative monetary penalties are a good start but they are far too low for the likes of an oil terminal which could do permanent environmental damage in a matter of hours.

An important point here is that this is not about any pipeline. This is about shipping. While there is certainly a connection, keep very much in mind that once the ship has left the terminal, no matter what outfits like Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan say now, they are no longer the responsible party and they will wash their hands of any involvement should a tanker hit the rocks.

That brings up another issue. Unless something radical happens, every ship transporting DilBit will be foreign-flagged. Every one. Canada has no significant foreign-going tanker fleet. That, whether the likes of Oliver or Lebel admit it or not, increases the risk. It would be a straight-forward matter to do what other countries have done and require that at least 40 percent of shipments be made in Canadian-flagged vessels. That would require that outfits like Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan, in order to move their product, become involved beyond the terminal and pay much closer attention to the safety of the route. It would be much more effective if Transport Canada was carrying out Flag-State Control instead of Port-State Control. None of that will happen, of course, and the likes of a propagandist banker like Oliver will see that it never does.

Then of course, there's this. Really, an "uncharted" sandbar? Maybe stick to deeper water next time. And there are still reports out there that the spill response vessel had a close-quarters situation with a BC Ferry. Not something which inspires confidence.

1 comment:

the salamander said...

Ah .. you're a lighthouse on a lee shore on a dark night in a heavy blow. There never will be a substitute for a master mariner, that's been there, done that, many many times, got the t-shirt ...

I so look forward to the truth of your posts ....