Written by David Bursey, Venetia E.K. Whiting, Brandon Mewhort, and Charlotte Teal
On 12 May 2017, the Government of Canada introduced Bill C-48, the proposed Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, in Parliament. This initiative follows up on the launch of the national Oceans Protection Plan in November 2016, and fulfils the Prime Minister’s commitment to formalize a crude oil tanker moratorium on British Columbia’s north coast. The broader plan aims to "improve marine safety and responsible shipping; protect Canada’s marine environment; and create new partnerships with Indigenous and coastal communities".
Oil tankers have been travelling along the British Columbia coast since the 1930s, mostly through the ports in Vancouver, Prince Rupert, and Kitimat. In recent years, oil tanker traffic has accounted for less than one percent of the overall traffic, according to Transport Canada records.
When the federal government talks about “formalizing” a crude oil tanker moratorium, it is important to note that there is no moratorium today—informal or otherwise—on oil tanker traffic to or from British Columbia ports.
How the Proposed Moratorium Works
The proposed moratorium is designed to complement the existing Voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone, which has been in place since 1985.1
The basic features of the proposed legislation are:
- Oil tankers carrying over 12,500 metric tons of crude or persistent oils as cargo are prohibited from stopping, loading or unloading these oils at ports or marine installations in northern British Columbia.
- The proposed tanker moratorium applies to the northern coast of British Columbia from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border—specifically, north of 50°53'00'' north latitude and west of 126°38'36'' west longitude.
- Vessels carrying less than 12,500 metric tons of crude or persistent oil as cargo will continue to be permitted in the moratorium area so northern communities can receive shipments of heating oils and other products.
- The master of an oil tanker that can carry over 12,500 metric tons of oil in bulk in liquid form must file a pre-arrival report with the Minister of Transport before entering the moratorium area.
- The definition of crude oil mirrors the definition in the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.
- Persistent oils are listed in a schedule to the proposed Act and include heavier products that are slow to dissipate, including: partially upgraded bitumen, synthetic crude oil, petroleum pitch, slack wax, and bunker C fuel oil.
- Refined petroleum products may be removed from or added to the list, based on science and environmental safety criteria.
- The Minister may exempt an oil tanker from the prohibition if it is “essential for the purpose of community or industry resupply or is otherwise in the public interest”.
- The remedies and penalties for contravention may include a fine up to $5 million, imprisonment, detention and sale of the vessel. Owners, directors and officers may be parties to an offence.
Current Federal Restrictions on Offshore Oil-Related Activities
Moratorium on Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration
In 1972, the federal government imposed a moratorium on oil and gas exploration off the British Columbia coast, through policy and executive order. This de facto moratorium was achieved by deciding to stop issuing any further exploration permits for the British Columbia offshore and suspending work obligations on existing permits.
No Moratorium on Offshore Crude Oil Tanker Traffic to and from Canadian Ports
In 1972, the federal government also announced a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic through the Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound, but it never implemented the moratorium through legislative instrument. The status of the moratorium has been a source of debate and confusion ever since. In practice, the federal government has continued to allow the export, import or the shipment of oil to or from British Columbia ports.
Voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone, 1985
In 1985, the federal government negotiated the Voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone (TEZ) with the United States Coast Guard. The TEZ extends from the British Columbia mainland coast to west of the Queen Charlotte Islands and Vancouver Island. Loaded oil tankers travelling from Alaska to Washington must travel west of the zone.<p">The TEZ does not apply to tankers travelling to or from Canadian ports. </p">
The New Moratorium—Implications for our Pacific Gateway
Prime Minister Trudeau said recently, "No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there".2 While that statement demonstrates the federal government's commitment to developing Canada's oil resources, the proposed Act creates a substantial logistical hurdle for that development.
The proposed Act defines a clear policy choice about where crude oil can be exported on the British Columbia coast—i.e., export only from the South Coast. That choice has profound implications for British Columbia and Canada economies, which both depend heavily on the export trade.
As this proposed Act proceeds through Parliament, we will undoubtedly hear more on the long-standing debate on the moratorium.
1 Transport Canada, press release, 12 May 2017.