What you need to know about the controversial tanker bill
EDMONTON—Bill C-48 isn’t dead in the water. It’s just going through the legislative motions.
On Wednesday night, the Senate’s transportation and communications committee rejected the controversial bill, also known as the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, one of several federal government decisions on oil that has driven a wedge between Alberta and British Columbia.
Premier Jason Kenney applauded the vote, and vowed his government would call on the Senate to go one step further and recommend killing the bill altogether.
Meanwhile, environmentalists in B.C. are warning that any amount of tanker traffic on B.C.’s pristine north coast could destroy the fragile ecosystem. They say they will hold Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to his election campaign promise to impose a tanker ban on that portion of B.C.’s coast.
But does the bill really do what it’s supposed to? And what happens to it from here?
What is Bill C-48?
Throughout 2015, Trudeau campaigned on the promise of a tanker ban on B.C.’s north coast, and in November 2016, he announced his government would put forward a bill that would place a moratorium on tankers.
But in that same announcement, he shelved the Northern Gateway pipeline that would have crossed northwestern B.C., and gave the go ahead to the deeply controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would nearly triple the amount of oil shipped out from Alberta, and increase tanker traffic through Vancouver’s already busy port.
Introduced in 2017, Bill C-48 would ban oil tanker traffic along British Columbia’s north coast, from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border. If passed, it would forbid tankers carrying more than 12,500 tonnes of oil from loading or unloading in the exclusion zone, either directly at ports or using other ships as intermediaries.
What’s happening to the bill now? And what’s next?
After it passed third reading in the House of Commons earlier this month, the bill was sent to the Senate transport and communications committee, to advise the Senate about whether or not it should return C-48 to the House for a final decision.
Sen. Paula Simons, an independent Senator from Alberta who sits on the committee, joined five Conservative senators in voting against the bill Wednesday night. Her vote resulted in a 6-6 tie and, according to Senate rules, that means the committee must suggest that the Senate kill the bill.
But that’s unlikely to happen, explained Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
With legislative authority resting with elected representatives in the House, she explained, the Senate, as the house of sober second thought, offers oversight on legislation, by reviewing and recommending amendments.
To reject the law in its current form “would probably be seen as a huge overreach of their power,” Williams added. “Because none of them are elected. They’re all appointed. The democratic legitimacy of such a rejection would be enormous.”
More likely, Williams said, the Senate will suggest amendments to the bill before handing it back for a final say.
Passing the bill before the looming federal election could require an extended sitting of the House into July, she noted, and there’s also a chance the House will decide to let the bill die, or postpone revisiting it until after the election.
Doesn’t B.C. already have a tanker ban?
There has been an informal tanker ban on B.C.’s northwest coast since the 1970s.
“It was originally sparked, not out of fear of Alberta bitumen, but out of fear of Alaska crude coming out of Alaskan oilfields,” said Joe Foy, co-executive director of the Wilderness Committee.
Tankers have been kept out of the area through a series of moratoriums on tanker traffic as well as oil and gas exploration. The Canadian government also established an exclusionary zone agreement with the U.S. government in 1985 that forces tankers shipping Alaskan crude to head out west and around the Queen Charlotte Islands before docking on the American west coast.
“It was everything we could do in the ’70s to stop tankers,” Foy said. He remembers growing up on B.C.’s coast, fishing and boating.
“What sent a shiver up and down north coast residents and elected leaders in First Nations communities is when Enbridge proposed to put a pipeline through to the north coast,” Foy said. “The Conservative government of the day reminded people that the tanker ban had never been formalized in law.”
Bill C-48 would formalize that ban. Foy said environmentalists in B.C. will maintain pressure on the federal government to pass bill C-48.
“We need to keep our eyes on the prize, we need that ban and we need to get it in place,” he said. “We really shouldn’t be in the business of exporting Alberta bitumen.”
How would tankers affect B.C.’s coast?
Misty MacDuffee, who works with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, spent more than a dozen months at sea on B.C.’s northern coast, documenting how shipping oil through these waters would affect marine wildlife.
B.C.’s northern shore features thousands of kilometres of coastline and is dotted with hundreds of islands and narrow inlets. That, combined with frequent wind and fog, make it difficult for ships to navigate, MacDuffee said.
“To navigate crude oil tankers through that coast is madness,” she said.
An oil spill in the region would destroy the habitat for hundreds of species and have worldwide ramifications. Some birds migrate to coastal B.C. from as far away as New Zealand.
“It’s an incredible, incredible place for just the richness of species and diversity of species. It’s vulnerable and it’s fragile, and we’ve already taken whales out of this area once from whaling.”
The waters off B.C.’s central and northern shorelines are home to a recovering population of baleen whales that migrate up and down the continent’s coast. Humpback, fin and grey whales have been growing in number since people stopped hunting them in the mid 1900s.
“Now we got this opportunity to let them return to their historic feeding ground,” MacDuffee added. “The last thing we should be doing is undermining the quality of their habitat ... and their ability to find food.”
Why is Alberta against it?
With the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) stuck in limbo after the Federal Court of Appeal rejected federal approval for the project, C-48 would add insult to injury, impeding province’s oil industry from accessing international markets.
The Liberal government ran on environmental reform, Simons explained, and the introduction of C-48 served as quid pro quo for the pipeline expansion.
“If TMX isn’t approved, and we impose C-48, then Alberta is hopeless,” she said. “There’s no chance for them to get their product to market on the Pacific.”
According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, lack of market access currently costs Canadian producers between $10.8 billion and $15.6 billion annually.
On top of that, Simons noted, she sees a slew of problems and inconsistencies with the bill.
“It doesn’t stop cruise ships, or other vessels heavily laden with fuel from transiting through particularly sensitive sea areas,” Simons said. “All this bill would have done is stopped tankers from loading cargo at Canadian ports along that coast. So, it didn’t offer the protection that people assumed that it did.”
Moreover, notes Ian Urquhart, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, the moratorium doesn’t apply to liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, and wouldn’t prevent the development LNG gas pipelines to tankers for export.
But it does prohibit any future oil pipelines to the ports of Prince Rupert or Kitimat, he added, and the possibility of any future “Northern Gateway” pipeline.
Thought to target both Alberta and Canada’s oil industry, the bill is seen as a threat to the province’s economic well-being. Kenney said it would jeopardize jobs and undermine national unity.
Alberta is particularly frustrated with the bill, Williams explained, because of a lack of consultation with the province itself.
“It’s this whole idea that decisions are being made in Ottawa without adequately considering Alberta’s interest and concerns, or considering the contribution that that Alberta makes to confederation,” she said. “The rest of Canada is happy to take the benefits of Alberta, but they’re not willing to actually provide support for Alberta and its industry that’s so important.”
With files from Alex Ballingall and The Canadian Press
Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter covering courts, wildlife conservation and new technology. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii
Hamdi Issawi is an Edmonton-based reporter covering the environment and energy. Follow him on Twitter: @hamdiissawi