Guest post by Stewart Muir, Executive Director of Resource Works

Recently, Resource Works decided to take an in-depth look at the facts around tanker safety regulations, spill risks and spill response on Canada’s West Coast and we are reporting back to you with what we learned.

Our new report, Citizen’s Guide to Tanker Safety and Spill Response on British Columbia’s South Coast, marks the first time all the facts have been brought together in one comprehensive, accessible document. We envision the Citizen’s Guide as a one-stop source for people who want definitive answers to these important issues.

All of the information we collected is publicly available from sources such as the government of Canada and its ministries and agencies; and from industry-funded organizations such as the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) — a government-certified spill response organization —  and the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, which tracks and annually reports tanker spill incident data worldwide.

Our research finds oil tankers present legitimate risks, and that these risks are being effectively addressed prior to the commencement of expanded shipping from Trans Mountain’s Westridge Marine Terminal. These measures not only provide response capacity and safety improvements for the Project, but for all marine traffic in the Salish Sea.

Here are some key findings.

Spill risks plummet despite more tanker traffic

The existing pipeline has been operating since 1953 without a drop of oil being spilled by a tanker visiting its terminal. The spill-prevention movement in the global oil shipping industry has yielded extraordinary results in recent decades. The total volume of cargo oil spilled has declined significantly, even as transport activity has increased.

When reviewing the marine risks posed by the Project, the following should be considered:

  • With risk-reducing measures in place, it is conservatively estimated that a credible worst-case oil spill from a tanker transporting crude oil from Westridge could occur once in every 2,841 years
  • Statistics collected over nearly 50 years by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation show that, globally, spill risks are plummeting. In the early 1970s, there was a tanker spill every two weeks. Now there are two a year, worldwide, despite a doubling of tanker activity over that time. The amount of oil spilled in this decade represents just one per cent of all oil spilled since 1970.
  • The definitive expert maritime risk assessment for TMEP concluded that “the [Salish Sea] region is capable of safely accommodating the additional one laden crude oil tanker per day increase that will result from the Project”
  • Hazards and risks related to the sailing route for laden tankers departing Trans Mountain’s Westridge Marine Terminal are prevented and mitigated by risk control measures
  • The tankers calling at Westridge will be of similar size, carry similar cargo in similar volume sizes and travel the same route as those calling there at present
  • The level of care and safety in the Salish Sea is well above globally-accepted shipping standards. This is reflected in the area’s marine safety record.
  • All reasonable measures to prevent spills are being taken including:
    • Expansion of the use of tugs that will now provide laden tankers with tug escort for the entire passage through Canadian waters between Westridge Marine Terminal and the Pacific Ocean
    • Increased local pilot use to navigate vessels
    • Enhanced tools for situational awareness
  • In addition to the tugs that TMEP will bring to the region, the federal Oceans Protection Plan is also sourcing larger tugs for the West Coast that will enhance the level of marine safety by increasing availability of salvage-capable tugs on the BC coast
  • There is no credible reason to believe the entire contents of a full tanker could be lost in a spill incident. For an Aframax-type of tanker, the credible worst-case scenario oil spill is the loss of the entire contents of two of the ship’s internal oil tanks (out of 12 to 14) to the sea, or 16,500 cubic metres of crude oil.

Response capacity leaps upward

Steps are being taken to significantly improve oil spill response capabilities, and the Project will enhance BC’s already-robust spill response capacity.

  • Transport Canada regulations require all commercial vessels, including tankers, to establish an arrangement with a certified oil spill response organization prior to entering Canada
  • Western Canada Marine Response Corporation is the industry-funded Transport Canada certified marine oil spill response organization on the BC coast
  • The Trans Mountain Expansion Project is facilitating WCMRC to carry out oil spill response enhancements that will cost $150 million and help to improve the level of protection currently available to the British Columbia coastline
  • WCMRC is establishing six new response bases — including Vancouver Harbour, the Fraser River and four on southern Vancouver Island — and adding about 115 new personnel and 43 new vessels including spill response craft and barges
  • Under the Oceans Protection Plan, the Government of Canada is funding additional resources for the Canadian Coast Guard, which will work with Indigenous communities to design and launch new Indigenous Community Response Teams, starting in British Columbia
  • The Government of Canada announced in November 2016, as part of the Oceans Protection Plan, that there will be “unlimited compensation” provided by reactivating a dormant levy on exported oil
  • After a review of the considerable research literature about diluted bitumen spills in water, Resource Works found that its fate and behaviour are much the same as that of other heavy oils. This Canadian-led research has been widely reported in the media.
  • Research initiatives funded by industry and the Government of Canada continue to expand the level of knowledge on the fate and behaviour of different oils, which assists in further improvements in oil spill response planning


A mature and dynamic system of governance is in place for marine safety and spill prevention on the West Coast of Canada with additional risk-control measures for oil tankers. The national system adopts into Canadian law, via the Canada Shipping Act 2001, international rules and regulations that are meant to protect the marine environment.

The regulatory environment for oil tankers includes these characteristics:

  • Governance of ship movement, navigation safety and spill compensation are carried out by international marine conventions and Transport Canada
  • Regulation, oversight and inspection of tankers by national and regional marine authorities led by Transport Canada
  • Compulsory use of experienced local marine pilots to navigate ships in local waters
  • Industry-led vetting and pre-loading inspections of all marine tankers to ensure the protection of the public interest as well as a port-state inspection of every foreign flag tanker in Canadian West Coast waters. A tanker cannot call at Westridge unless it has met all criteria, including certificate and insurance requirements.
  • Of the National Energy Board’s 157 conditions for Project approval, 11 require specific marine commitments to be fulfilled
  • Advancements resulting from the Federal Oceans Protection Plan, which provides $1.5 billion over a five-year period to achieve a world-leading marine safety system that will increase the Government of Canada's capacity to prevent and improve response to marine pollution incidents
  • Tankers calling at Westridge Marine Terminal must be double-hull construction, which is a Canadian and international regulation
  • Prior to entry into Canadian waters, the tanker must seek permission from the Canadian Coast Guard and also enter into an arrangement with WCMRC for spill response readiness