The Trudeau government's plan to ban tanker traffic on the West Coast needs a rethink, write Sean Speer and Brian Lee Crowley in the Vancouver Sun.
By Sean Speer and Brian Lee Crowley, May 12, 2016
The Trudeau government has sensibly been shifting its position on resource development in general and pipeline construction in particular from one of pre-electoral scepticism to post-electoral embrace. It ends months of uncertainty about where it stood on the subject and creates the conditions for a major breakthrough on getting Canada's energy resources to new markets. But this evolution in thought is incomplete until the government understands how tanker traffic on BC’s northern coast is also consistent with and essential to the national interest.
Ottawa’s focus on building positive relationships with Indigenous communities and strengthening public trust and confidence in the regulatory process are positive steps. The prime minister’s recent comments that part of his role – one of his “fundamental responsibilities” – is to get Canadian energy resources to international markets is another. The government seems to be doing and saying the right things. The prospects of progress on pipeline construction seems greater than it has for several years.
Part of this shift in the government’s thinking is doubtless a result of crossing from the opposition benches into the Cabinet room and learning more about the strengths of Canada’s independent, science-based regulatory regime. Assuming this is true, it’s a victory for “evidence-based policy” and a sign that the Trudeau government is willing to adjust its position in the face of inconvertible facts.
Which brings us to new speculation that Ottawa may be softening its position on a tanker ban on BC’s northern coast. The imposition of such a ban was part of the government’s election platform and was reiterated in the transport minister’s mandate letter and subsequent comments by the prime minister and his Cabinet colleagues.
Yet a moratorium on tanker traffic diverges from the evidence and Canada’s economic interests. Revisiting this campaign commitment would thus be another triumph of what works and what makes sense over rhetorical flourishes and special-interest politics.
Consider that Canada is a world leader when it comes to managing oil tanker traffic safely in ecologically-sensitive waterways. Tankers transporting oil and petroleum products are to be seen almost daily off the coast of Newfoundland, in the Passamaquoddy Bay, on the St. Lawrence River and in Vancouver harbour, to pick just a few examples. And still the number of oil spills in Canada fell to zero in in the 2000s. Only the Netherlands and Sweden can match Canada’s perfect record in the last decade. It’s not surprising therefore that there are no serious calls for banning oil tankers off the coast of Newfoundland or along the St. Lawrence.
This isn’t the result of mere luck or a sweeping ban. It’s attributable to Canada’s regulatory standards and a focus on evidence-based safety and environmental practices. Smart policies such as the establishment of Marine Protected Areas and the placement of significant financial responsibilities on shippers have helped to make Canada a world leader in minimizing the number of accidents and oil spills.
A moratorium on West Coast tanker traffic would thus be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It would involve abandoning what’s working and replacing it with the type of simplistic policy thinking that the government claims it eschews.
And the economic cost could be significant. Consider that the Northern Gateway project alone can contribute more than $300 billion to the Canadian economy, including an average increase of 27,000 person-years of employment per year. A West Coast tanker ban would put this economic activity and good, well-paying jobs into jeopardy and for little environmental benefit.
A moratorium on West Coast tanker traffic would thus be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The alternative is a careful, well-designed marine safety and environmental policy that builds on Canada’s world-leading record and create the conditions for our resources to get to global markets. It’s ultimately about following the evidence and advancing Canada’s economic interests.
Early signs suggest that when it comes to resource development the government is prepared to be pragmatic and adjust its positions in response to clear facts and sound arguments. The same ought to apply to banning tanker traffic on BC’s northern coast.
Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director and Sean Speer is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute