The B.C. government is set to introduce a new law requiring oil companies to have what it calls a "world-leading" response to oil spills on land — creating a path for industry to meet one of the province's five requirements for heavy oil pipelines.
Environment Minister Mary Polak said the province's existing Environmental Management Act was "really out of date," and the amendments will require companies to prepare for an oil spill on land and clean up after one.
"The biggest change here is the scope" of what a company is responsible for, said Polak, from prevention to cleanup to environmental restoration.
"We're requiring them to be prepared. We're also requiring them to have plans to prevent a spill from ever occurring."
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While environmentalists are welcoming tighter rules, concerns remain that no clean-up efforts — world-leading or not — will mitigate damage from heavy oil spills.
1 of 5 conditions
In 2012, B.C. set out five conditions that had to be met for it to support any heavy oil pipeline project, including "world-leading" oil spill prevention and response on land and water.
The new legislation, which if passed is expected to come into effect in early 2017, will tell companies exactly what B.C. considers "world-leading" when it comes to land-based spills, and what they'll have to do.
"It satisfies our condition with respect to world-leading response on land," said Polak. "There are of course other hurdles."
The laws only target oil spills on land, because that's what falls under provincial jurisdiction, though Polak noted that many marine spills eventually make their way to land.
The transport of hazardous goods and marine spills are both federal responsibilities, and B.C. will work with Ottawa on that, she said.
'When spills happen ... it's too late'
The proposed changes are being welcomed by the Georgia Strait Alliance, an environmental group that has advocated against oil pipelines and for better spill response and preparedness.
But executive director Christianne Wilhelmson said calling any response "world-leading" obscures the reality that there are no effective tools for cleaning up certain spills, such as diluted bitumen.
"Good spill response is essential," said Wilhelmson. "However, when spills happen, in particular with things like diluted bitumen, it's too late."
Wilhelmson said she'll be watching for the details of response times, recovery standards and public accountability, when the full regulations enabled by the new legislation are made public.
NDP environment critic George Heyman said it's appropriate to put more onus on whoever is responsible for a spill but said the government looks like it will leave the industry in charge of the response — without enough oversight.
"It's very difficult to understand how this can be a world-class response when this government simply does not have the resources or people on the ground to do serious monitoring when there is a spill."
The new legislation will include new offenses and penalties, though the specifics will be defined at the regulatory stage after the law has passed, said Polak.
The changes have been in the works since 2010, and were developed in consultation with industry, First Nations, local governments and others.