New spill response base proposed for Nanaimo, part of an expansion to be funded by the Trans Mountain project. (Western Canada Marine Response Corp.)

Bitumen no worse than other crude, Ottawa says

B.C. call for oil risk feedback draws blast from Transport Canada

Transport Canada has issued a lengthy response to B.C.’s concern about “gaps” in knowledge of oil spill behaviour, referring to 60 peer-reviewed papers published by federal scientists since 2012 on diluted bitumen alone.

Today (April 30) is the B.C. government’s deadline for public input into its new policy intentions paper, issued at the end of February to collect feedback on ways to reduce oil spills in the province. The B.C. NDP government plans to issue a policy update in August.

The federal response contradicts recent statements by B.C. Premier John Horgan and Environment Minister George Heyman that expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline to enable more shipments of diluted bitumen represents an unacceptable threat to the B.C. coast.

RELATED: B.C. seeks court ruling on new pipeline regulations

The Transport Canada response details studies of Alberta heavy crude’s behaviour in fresh and salt water and changes as the oilsands-extraced heavy oil weathers, compared to conventional crude oil that is carried by tankers daily from Alaska to Washington, California and Gulf Coast refineries.

“Our findings have shown that diluted bitumen behaviour falls within the range of conventional oil products, and so conventional mechanical methods have been found effective, especially in the initial stages of a spill,” Transport Canada states in its submission.

“We are continuing to study both the impacts of the spill of diluted bitumen on biota, as well as mapping the baseline ecological state of the coastal ecosystems that could be affected by an oil spill.”

Baseline studies are underway along B.C.’s north coast, where the Trudeau government has imposed a moratorium on crude oil tanker docking that effectively killed the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposed to run to Kitimat.

The B.C. government intentions paper sought feedback on what response times it should require in new policy. It acknowledges that marine spill response is the responsibility of Transport Canada, with the Canadian Coast Guard as the lead agency.

The federal government has an expansion of its spill response in the works, with new facilities to be constructed by the industry-funded Western Canada Marine Response Corp. They include response bases at Burrard Inlet, Nanaimo, Port Alberni, Sidney and Beecher Bay in the Juan de Fuca Strait, as well as an offshore supply vessel to be based at Ogden Point in Victoria.

Kinder Morgan Canada has committed $150 million to the spill response project, conditional on completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline twinning. That funding was suspended by the company this month, along with all non-essential spending on the pipeline, with Kinder Morgan seeking assurances by the end of May that further delays and demands won’t be imposed on a project that has already received federal and provincial approval.

The previous B.C. Liberal government commissioned its own spill study in 2013, when it was pressing for conditions to increased crude oil pipeline capacity that included greater spill response. It found that marine traffic was increasing rapidly, with 110 million cubic metres of petroleum products being shipped annually. About one third of that was Alaska crude oil in tankers, and another third was bunker oil that is used as fuel for large shipping of all kinds.

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