A timeline of important political dates throughout B.C.'s tanker history

Slick Talk: A history of oil tankers and B.C.’s coast

An in-depth look at the history of oil tankers and B.C.'s coast

Whether or not a ban on oil tanker traffic exists off B.C.’s north coast is up to political interpretation.

This issue was recently raised as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project was served onto the springtime-provincial-election court — marked here by a recent visit from B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix.

Dix toured the Douglas Channel, tracing the route oil tankers would take to pick up raw bitumen from the pipeline, according to Enbridge’s current proposal. The trip’s timing set the field for Dix to criticize an announcement by Premier Christy Clark of the five pipeline preconditions, that she made a week prior to his trip.

Dix said one of the preconditions, that “a world-leading marine oil spill prevention, response and recovery system” must be in place for the province to consider project support, effectively abandons a decades-old ban on oil tanker traffic that exists in north coast waters. If an ocean oil spill needs cleaning up, that means tankers were allowed to travel there in the first place, he said.

“The fact is there haven’t been supertankers carrying crude or bitumen in the region,” said Dix. “That’s not an accident. That’s been policy.”

But others disagree. “There is no moratorium on tankers entering British Columbia ports,” said B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake in April 2011, after the province was asked by the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) to support a tanker traffic ban in northwestern waters.

The federal government has also stated their position on whether a ban exists.

“It is the Government of Canada’s position that there is presently no moratorium on tanker traffic in the coast waters of B.C.,” according to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s website as of Aug. 18, 2012.

But the finality of both statements is not so simple.

The idea of a moratorium comes from actions by Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1972. First, there was a motion and then there was a ban. The wording of the motion indicated that tanker traffic from Alaska to Puget Sound, in the lower-mainland’s Georgia Basin, was too dangerous for tankers to traverse. The moratorium indicates tankers cannot travel through the Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, regardless of direction or destination.

Back in 1972, it was never contemplated that one day traffic would originate in B.C. and travel west, said Patrick O’Rourke, provincial assistant deputy minister from 2003 to 2008 responsible for off-shore oil and gas.

“Basically what that means is you can argue it either way,” he said.

The moratorium was never put through legislation. It was never put into law and is considered informal policy.

“It was a mistake of the government of the day,” said Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley. “It is legitimate policy but it can be undone quite easily.”

While neither current provincial or federal governments recognize the 1972 ban, what they do uphold is the 1988 “Tanker Excursion Zone,” a voluntary measure agreed to by the United States and Canada that states tankers must remain 50 nautical miles offshore in order to prevent south bound oil tankers from Alaska using the inside strait east of Haida Gwaii. This excursion zone is respected by the international shipping industry and is monitored by the Canadian Coast Guard and Specific States B.C. Oil Spill Task Force, according to B.C. Ministry of Environment staff.

History of the Moratoria

In the late 1960s, a national conversation was gaining volume around oil and gas in B.C.’s waters. A moratorium on exploration drilling had been placed by the B.C. government in 1959, but it included a window from 1962 to 1966 for proposals. Three seismic explorations took place by Shell Oil Co., as well as other explorations by various companies including Gulf Oil and Union Oil and Gas.  Oil spills, too, dotted the history of those years including one along 300 kilometres of Nova Scotia’s coast in 1970.

One year later, the provincial government passed a resolution opposing tanker traffic in northern B.C. waters, and the federal government announced a halt to oil and gas exploration, relinquishing all existing permits.

In 1972 the House of Commons unanimously supported the motion that movement of oil tanker traffic along B.C.’s coastline was harmful to Canadian interests. This decision to ban tanker traffic was based on recommendations from the Commons Special Committee on Environmental Pollution. Another ban, still unofficial, furthered the prohibition by disallowing oil and gas exploration off the coast as well.

Then, from 1984 to 1986, the provincial and federal governments once again considered lifting the exploration moratorium and conducted analyses of offshore oil and gas drilling. The results stated that exploration could proceed subject to 92 recommendations. From 1986 to 1989, the two governments negotiated the management of such exploration.

Then, just after midnight, March 24, 1989, 43 million litres of crude oil from the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled into the Prince William Sound and onto the shores of southern Alaska.

This effectively put a stop to exploration off B.C.’s coast. Five days after the spill, B.C. announced there would be no offshore drilling for at least five years and the federal government announced it would not consider offshore drilling again unless requested by the province.

That request was made by B.C., almost exactly five years later. In 2004, the Government of Canada indeed commissioned a three-part report on oil and gas exploration; a science review, a public review and a First Nations engagement.

One conclusion of the science review stated that the present moratoria should be maintained: “Even with the improved record of spills in territorial waters off North America over the last 10 years, there is no imperative to relax this restriction.”

The results of the public review presented four options, with 75 per cent of British Columbians in favour of maintaining the moratoria.

Since the three reports were published, the government has taken no action with regard to any recommendations.

“… The issue before was not tankers. It was whether to allow oil and gas exploration. So that’s what the (2004) panel looked at,” said O’Rourke. “The question about tanker traffic would have arisen down the road if the decision had been made to ship it.”

Although the expectation is now to transport crude oil in B.C.’s waters, a new report has not been commissioned.

Differing Interpretations

More recently, in December of 2010, Cullen passed a motion to the House of Commons similar to the unofficial 1972 ban, as an attempt to put it into law.

It read “the Government should immediately propose legislation to ban bulk oil tanker traffic in the Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound as a way to protect the west coast’s unique and diverse ocean ecosystem …” It was passed 143 to 138 in the House of Commons but was non-binding. Since then parliament has not acted on the matter.

“What the motion did was express the will of parliament,” Cullen said. “The prime minister said the will of parliament should be respected, but he ignored it completely.”

Other motions and private member’s bills have been introduced with the same message. The most recent is Bill C-211 proposed by NDP MP Finn Donnelly, the preamble for which states “transportation of oil in oil tankers in certain areas of the sea adjacent to the coast of Canada poses a risk to the marine environment.”

Cullen said that if the legislation were passed, it would absolutely put a stop to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

At around the same time Cullen’s motion was approved, the UBCM resolution to ban crude oil tanker traffic was received by the provincial and federal governments.

In responding to UBCM, the federal government made clear what its intentions are with respect to the bill to ban tanker traffic:

“This proposal (Bill C-211) aims to prevent the Northern Gateway pipeline from proceeding … The Government intends to await the Joint Review Panel’s report and recommendations before making a decision on the project,” was the Ministry of Natural Resources response in April 2011.

In response to statements by the current provincial and federal governments saying that no ban exists, Dix said they’re dancing on a technicality.

“Two governments that support Enbridge are now saying it doesn’t exist. Effectively, they’ve lifted it.” he said. “I’m curious to know when it was lifted.”

The B.C. Ministry of Environment maintains its position on a tanker traffic ban. “There is no moratorium on B.C.’s coast,” was the reply from ministry staff.