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World-Class Marine Shipping: The Canada way

Canada is a world leader in safe shipping using oil tankers. Here's why.

With more than 243,000 kilometres, Canada has the longest coastline in the world. Our country boasts shores on three oceans and adheres to some of the most stringent marine safety standards in the world in order to protect them.

Here are some of the ways Canada protects its coastlines:

  • Marine inspectors board oil tankers that ply Canadian waters to make sure they have double hulls: two water-tight layers on the bottom and the sides of the ship that greatly reduces the risk of oil spilling into the water even if the ship’s hull is damaged.
  • Local pilots with extensive regional knowledge are required to navigate oil tankers entering Canada’s harbours and commercial waterways.
  • Tugboat escorts are used to guide loaded vessels through constricted water areas.
  • Surveillance planes routinely patrol Canada’s coastlines to detect spills on the water as small as one litre.
Peter Ellis, Executive Director for Clear Seas, says it's important decision makers have access to up-to-date, science-based information on tanker safety. Photo courtesy Clear Seas.

“These are all examples of prevention that, combined with some of the voluntary standards within the industry, continue to enhance marine safety,” says Peter Ellis, Executive Director of the independent not-for-profit research organization, Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping.

Add enhanced emergency preparedness and industry-funded response systems to the mix, and the result is a world-class marine tanker safety system.

The Facts on Tanker Safety

Crude oil and petroleum products are the largest commodities handled by Canadian ports, representing over 20 per cent of total tonnage. According to Transport Canada, tankers carry about 80 million tonnes of oil along Canada’s coasts and there are about 20,000 oil tanker movements in total every year. These movements include imports of crude oil, domestic transports of fuel, and exports of oil to the U.S. and overseas.

Meanwhile, incidents of major maritime oil spills (defined as more than 7,000 tonnes) have dropped to zero since 2000, from a high of 18 in the 1980s. In fact, 67 per cent of ship-sourced oil spills between 2003 and 2012 were about the volume of a standard hot tub (between 100 and 1,000 litres), and there were no spills larger than 1 million litres (by comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill was about 41 million litres).

One of the biggest challenges organizations like Clear Seas has is communicating this kind of fact-based information about marine safety to both the public and governments, Ellis notes. The organization works to distil complex information like risk assessments and technical reports into easy to understand information for the general public. Ellis says, “It’s important for people to form their own opinion on evidence-based information, instead of just emotional rhetoric that is out there, or incomplete or incorrect information.”

World-class Regulations

Keeping marine traffic regulated and safe starts in Ottawa where the federal government legislates policies and regulations and Transport Canada manages the creation and enforcement of standards and response plans. The Canadian Coast Guard, meanwhile, oversees spill responses. Responses are performed by four federally certified and industry-funded oil spill response organizations; three located on the East Coast where 85 per cent of tanker traffic happens, and one—the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC)—based in British Columbia.

“Oil spill response agencies like ours are responsible for all marine spills that happen in the ocean environment. That could be a ship source spill or from an oil handling facility,” explains Michael Lowry, spokesperson for the WCMRC. He notes that Canada’s current marine response regime found its origins in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident, when a tanker grounded on a reef off the Alaska coast, spilling 260,000 barrels of oil into the ocean.

Michael Lowry of the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation notes that enhanced spill response measures will lower response times along Canada's West Coast.

At that time, the Canada Shipping Act was amended to include regulations and standards to protect all navigable waters. While these gave Canada some of the toughest regulations in the world, marine safety regulations have been continuously enhanced, such as a regulation banning large single-hulled oil tankers from Canadian waters beginning in 2010. The standards have had an impact.

“It’s very clear that from the 1970s onward, the trend has been really declining in terms of number of incidents and volume of spills,” notes Ellis.

Adds Lowry, “The number of oil spills we respond to (in B.C.) remains quite low, about twenty a year, and most don’t require our presence for more than a day.”

Most recently, the federal government introduced its $1.5-billion federal Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) which includes comprehensive plans and augmented resourcing to handle increased shipping along Canada’s West Coast.

Responding If Needed

Tankers have moved oil along the B.C. coast since the 1930s, most of it destined to and from local communities. In 2015, tankers represented less than one per cent (1,487) of the 200,000 vessel departures and arrivals at West Coast ports, including five out of 250 vessels visiting the Port of Vancouver each month.

That Port of Vancouver number would rise to around 34 a month with the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion, which ends at Burrard marine terminal.

While the numbers show that major oil spills are extremely rare in Canadian waters despite tens of thousands of transits, organizations like the WCMRC are ready to respond if needed. Indeed, in response to the expected increase in tanker traffic along the West Coast, WCMRC will add five new bases: in Nanaimo, Port Alberni, Ucluelet, Sidney and Beecher Bay, in addition to its mainland and Vancouver Island bases.

They will be adding 130 people and 40 vessels six months before the expansion is launched, including a 200-foot offshore supply vessel that can handle rough, open seas, transport equipment to a spill site and hold recovered product.

“With these enhancements, we are taking a drastic step in lowering those response times and getting on to the scene faster, with the right amount of equipment,” says Lowry.

The Question of a Moratorium

The federal government has introduced Bill C-48 which proposes a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic along British Columbia’s north coast, a plan which has a noticeable gap in incorporating science-based information about the safety of tankers, and one which would have a negative impact on Canada’s economy, says Nancy Bérard-Brown, CAPP Manager, Oil Markets and Transportation.

“The federal government has not identified or provided industry with scienceā€based gaps in safety or environmental protection that justifies a moratorium,” notes Bérard-Brown.

“Once we start veering away from fact-based decisions, it may have unintended negative consequences to the economy. For example, a moratorium would reduce access to new markets in Asia. This has an economic impact on producers, Canada, direct and indirect jobs, taxes, revenues.”

Canada’s growing crude oil supply outlook – 5.1 million b/d in 2030, up from 3.85 million b/d in 2016 – is jostling against limited pipeline capacity. And with Canada’s primary export market, the United States, becoming a major competitor, it’s important to have access to tidewater and global markets, Bérard-Brown adds.

This graph shows how the incident of major spills worldwide has fallen since the 1980s, even as shipping by oil tankers has steadily increased. Courtesy Clear Seas.

Bring on the Science

CAPP and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association recently commissioned an independent study to better understand, evaluate and compare the physical and chemical properties of oil on water. The study, to be completed and released in 2018, will fill a knowledge gap around how different types of oil react in different environments, such as a spill in a marine estuary or freshwater setting, under a range of different environmental conditions.

“Canada has an outstanding record on marine safety as we have a stringent regulatory and enforcement regime,” said Bérard-Brown. “We hope this study will meet regulatory requirements, as well as inform policy.

"Canada has an outstanding record on marine safety as we have a stringent regulatory and enforcement regime."

Nancy Bérard-Brown

Clear Seas also has a strong mandate to initiate and interpret research focused on the human, environmental and economic impacts of marine shipping. This research includes practices for safe handling of goods at marine terminals, the impacts of oil and liquid natural gas shipping, spill prevention and response and impacts on coastal and Indigenous communities.

“We collaborate with Indigenous groups, stakeholders and experts to identify knowledge gaps, share results of existing studies and initiate new research when needed,” says Ellis. “It’s important to ensure that decision makers have access to up-to-date, science-based information.”

“To the extent that we have good scientific research, we can all make much better decisions,” agrees Bérard-Brown, “With further scientific research we can help provide better information for everyone to rely on, from spill responders to the public to government officials and regulators.”

Additional reading:

Protecting Canadian waters from oil spills – Transport Canada infographic

Tanker Safety by the Numbers – Transport Canada infographic

World-Class Tanker Safety – Behind the Scenes – Transport Canada video

Clear Seas: Oil Tankers in Canadian Waters


In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Michael Lowry
    Michael Lowry Communications Managers at Western Canada Marine Response Corporation
  • Nancy Berard-Brown
    Nancy Bérard-Brown Manager Oil Markets and Transportation, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
  • Peter Ellis
    Peter Ellis Executive Director, Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping