Vancouver oil spill shows how bad decisions can pile up


The recent bunker fuel spill from a vessel off the coast of Vancouver should serve as a wakeup call for any Canadians who still think that the Northern Gateway Pipeline and planned deep water port in Kitimat, BC will be nothing more than good for business.  This highlights how the government is ignoring important recommendations from the Auditor General and showcases the effects of budget cuts and Coast Guard station closures.  It also sets a challenge for the government who simply must do more to improve Canada`s ability to respond to spills in the marine environment.


It was almost five years ago that the Auditor General told Canada that we are not prepared to respond to major oil spills.  Instead of viewing that as a challenge to be addressed, the Conservatives went full bore to gut our environmental protections and slashed resources that were charged with monitoring and responding to spills.  That included a big cut to Environment Canada’s 2012 budget which resulted in the closure of the spill response office in Vancouver and the consolidation of Canada’s regional spill offices.


In addition to those counter-productive changes at Environment Canada, there were broad cuts to the Canadian Coast Guard, including the Kitsilano base along with other Marine Communication and Traffic Centres across the country, like we saw on the Great Lakes when the Thunder Bay office was shut down.  Predictions that those decisions were setting the stage for disaster don’t sound like posturing in the wake of the spill and slow response time in Vancouver’s English Bay.


 What we have seen since the spill has been a public relations exercise that is deflecting blame for the slow response – especially for the containment of the oil.  I am told by colleagues that the defunct  Kitsilano base is only an hour away from the spill in English Bay and could have made for a quicker first response and initial containment attempt. Coast Guard officials are quick to point out Kitsalano was not equipped for a cleanup of this magnitude, but they did have a small boom that could have begun the containment process. 


As events played out the Coast Guard took a full day to take control of the spill and the slow response shows that the concerns raised by the Auditor Generals have likely gotten worse in the wake of budget cuts.  On top of that, our new industry-friendly environmental regulations cannot be counted on to give us a clear picture of the dangers that will be faced if the Northern Gateway pipeline is allowed to proceed.


The convergence of questionable regulations and a weakened response to marine oil spills show how the government has been gambling with our environmental legacy.  It is no secret that the biggest lobby presence in the office of the Prime Minister has been that of the oil and gas industry.   The government has pretty much granted their every wish in recent years and has gone so far as to consider opponents of the industry as potential terrorists.   It throws into question the nature of who a government is meant to serve and who it is meant to protect.  It would seem this government is more concerned about the rights of business elites than it is about those of Canadians. That isn’t the definition of a democracy, it is the definition of an oligarchy.