Feds stall on BC north coast tanker ban

Peter O'Neil

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won’t say when his government will fulfill a campaign promise to “formalize” an oil tanker ban for the northern B.C. coast.

“We’re working every day on getting both the environment and the economy protected right across the country,” Trudeau said in a recent interview when asked when he will fulfill that high-profile pledge.

“We’ll continue to work on that file.”

There has been considerable media speculation that there could be a loophole in the ban if Enbridge Inc. moves its proposed terminal for a $7.9-billion oilsands pipeline terminal from Kitimat to Prince Rupert near the Canada-Alaska border.

Trudeau, however, said repeatedly that he still supports a ban that would effectively kill Enbridge’s proposed 525,000-barrel-a-day oilsands pipeline.

“Crude oil supertankers just have no place on B.C.’s north coast,” he said.

Gavin Smith, staff counsel for the Vancouver-based organization West Coast Environmental Law, said federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau and his staff told his group in early 2016 that the ban would be implemented “within a year.”

The expected imposition in early 2017 of the ban, through either legislation or a regulation, would provide time for the government to determine the geographic area covered by the ban, deal with possible diplomatic issues with the U.S., and define both “oil” and “tanker,” he said.

Smith, while confident Canadian taxpayers aren’t vulnerable to an Enbridge lawsuit, speculated that there could be a further legal rationale for the government waiting until 2017.

Enbridge, which was required under the terms of the 2014 regulatory approval to begin construction by the end of this year, recently asked the National Energy Board for a three-year extension to the end of 2019.

This extra time would allow the company to increase community and Aboriginal support, as well as deal with uncertainties caused by legal challenges, the new court-imposed requirement to get a B.C. environmental assessment certificate and the threatened Liberal ban, Enbridge said.

Ottawa, however, would have the final say on the extension of the former government’s 2014 approval, which was subject to the NEB’s 209 conditions.

“It could be more palatable to the federal government to refuse Northern Gateway’s request for a new lease on life on the grounds that it was granted a federal approval but failed to meet its conditions,” Smith said.

That would set the stage for the project dying a “natural death,” he said. Then the federal government could then quickly impose the ban “to remove all doubt that the project is dead, and to bring lasting protection to the region from oil tankers.”

David Anderson, a former federal Liberal environment and fisheries minister, also believes the government is trying to avoid liability.

Instead of quickly bringing in a ban, Ottawa is “leaving it to die for lack of commercial interest,” said Anderson, who as a Victoria MP in the early 1970s convinced the prime minister’s father Pierre to bring in an informal north coast tanker ban.

Joyce Murray, the Vancouver Quadra MP who in 2010 convinced her Liberal colleagues to embrace the ban, said Tuesday she’s confident Trudeau will follow through on the pledge.

The Liberal campaign platform called for the “formalization of the moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s North Coast, including the Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound, to ensure that ecologically sensitive areas and local economies are protected from the potentially devastating impacts of a spill.”

That promise was repeated in Trudeau’s mandate letters to his cabinet ministers involved in the file.

Despite media speculation that Prince Rupert could somehow be exempted, vessels cannot enter or leave the Port of Prince Rupert without sailing through the Dixon Entrance.

So allowing a terminal in that northern community would be a “complete reversal” of a campaign promise, he said.