Potential polluters should be prepared for a worst-case scenario and face unlimited liability in the case of an oil spill from one of their tanker ships, a government-appointed panel recommends.

Federal Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt and Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver were in Vancouver Tuesday afternoon to release a report about oil tanker safety on the West Coast.

“No project will proceed unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment,” said Oliver.

The report was written by a three-member panel of experts appointed by the government, with 45 recommendations for improving Canada's preparedness for oil spills from tankers and barges.

Among the key recommendations:

  • Removing the current $161-million liability limit for each spill in favour of an unlimited liability for polluters.
  • Annual spill training exercises.
  • Regional risk assessments based on local geography.
  • Faster emergency responses to spills.
  • Increased resources for the coast guard, Environment Canada and Transport Canada to help improve the system.

It's the first major review of Canada's ship-source oil spill regime since it was implemented in the mid-1990s and forms a key part of the Conservative federal government's efforts to reassure Canadians about the effects of an energy resource boom.

The 66-page report notes that two current pipeline proposals alone — by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan — could bring another 600 tankers through British Columbia waters, while posing new hazards by transporting diluted bitumen and liquefied natural gas.

Raitt welcomed the report Tuesday while listing a series of actions she said the government has already taken to improve tanker safety.

Those include a promise to increase inspections of foreign tankers and a government study on the behaviour of diluted bitumen in sea water. Raitt said the goal of the panel report is to improve on "an already robust tanker safety system."

But Ottawa isn't adopting any of the recommendations, at least not yet. "We now have a base of information and advice from a great expert panel to go forward to do consultation," said Raitt, although the panel has already talked to stakeholders, ports, oil companies and First Nations in developing the report.

Art Sterritt, the executive director of Coastal First Nations, is critical of the federal government's approach. "Whether you call it world class or you have a world-class expert panel — it doesn't matter what you call it. These people don't have anything that gives Coastal First Nations any comfort."

The province said the report is a positive development — but it, too, is waiting to see results.

"We have to see what the implementation would look like … especially when it comes to world-leading spill response in a marine environment," said B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak,"

The report is the first of two that the federal government commissioned from the three-member panel in March. A second study will deal with spill hazards in the Arctic as well as an examination of hazardous and noxious spills — such as bitumen and liquefied natural gas — on marine environments.

With files from Canadian Press