The federal government won't impose unlimited liability on oil tanker companies if an oil spill occurs off the Atlantic or west coasts, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said today.

Speaking to a crowd in Saint John, Raitt said her government will instead raise the liability for a company that has an oil spill from the current $161 million per incident to $400 million per spill. 

Once the ship owner's insurance and other funds are factored in, it would mean $1.6 billion would be available to cover compensation and cleanup.

If an oil spill cleanup costs more than that, the government would recover the costs from the company through a levy.

The new measures are in contrast to a main finding of a tanker safety expert panel that recommended last fall that "the oil cargo industry should be responsible for the full costs of spills … with no limit per incident."

The expert panel was appointed by the Harper government to recommend ways to strengthen marine safety and reassure the public.

The government is taking the advice of the expert panel on its other key recommendations.

Support in Saint John for oil exports

This is the government's official response to the expert panel on tanker safety.

The panel's report was released last fall in B.C., where there is huge public opposition to the prospect of tankers carrying heavy crude down the environmentally sensitive coastline. 

In contrast, Raitt's announcement was symbolically made in Saint John, where there is strong political support for an increase in oil export activity. 

Saint John is the site of a future oil tanker terminal that's part of TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline. The Atlantic region is also seeing a boom in proposed Liquefied Natural Gas projects that would ship LNG to markets in Europe.

Aside from the lack of a cap on liability for companies, Raitt announced that Canada will put in place new regional planning and resources to better respond to accidents, based on local geography, in four areas: 

  • Southern British Columbia.
  • Saint John and the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick.
  • Port Hawkesbury in Nova Scotia.
  • The Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

More research, technology for cleanup

Canada will also lift restrictive rules on what can be used to clean up spills, allowing emergency responders to use a wider range of technology.

The government is also committed to pay for more research into pre-treating heavy oil products at source so if they do spill, they won't cause so much damage, and it's providing more money to industry and universities for more research into how to clean up heavy oil. 

There is also a commitment to help aboriginal communities buy equipment for marine emergencies and to partner with the Canadian Coast Guard. 

A recent study prepared for the federal government suggested Canadians are increasingly wary of the environmental risks of shipping or exporting oil using any kind of infrastructure — pipelines, tankers or rail.​