Stats don’t back call for oil tanker ban in Canada

March 24, 2012 | By | Reply More

Safety and environmental considerations

Canada has one of the best records of all countries when it comes to tanker spills.

Troy Media – Dr. Phillip John    

The energy industry is a critical part of Canada’s economy. As of 2009, it directly employed more than a quarter of a million people and represented more than 5 per cent of our nation’s economy. The sector has a footprint from one coast to the other and offers a diversity of energy production, ranging from conventional energies like oil and gas to new, alternative energies like wind and solar.

Transportation is a vital component of the larger energy sector as it enables Canadian producers to deliver demanded energy goods to customers around the globe. Water transportation, in particular, is critical for Canada’s non-North American customers.

Canada has a vibrant marine transportation industry. Some 100,000 vessels transit Canadian waters annually transporting more than 360 million tonnes of goods with an estimated commercial value of approximately $85 billion. The total monetary value of marine economic activity in Canada’s coastal areas is around $150 billion per year. Marine and marine related activity in Canada contributes over $9 billion annually to the economy, positively impacting the lives and standard of living of all Canadians from coast to coast while employing some 93,000 people.

A series of private member’s bills were introduced in the House of Commons over the last four years that would have formally banned oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s Northwest Coast. Bill C-211 is only the most recent bill introduced (2011). In one way or another, all of the bills would amend the Canada Shipping Act to prohibit the transportation of liquid petroleum by oil tankers in areas adjacent to that coast, specifically the Queen Charlotte Sound, Hecate Strait, and Dixon Entrance. It would also allow future governments, on the recommendation of the Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, to designate other areas of the sea in which oil-tanker traffic would be prohibited.


To lay the foundation for the discussion on the merits of the proposed bans, the role played by energy in our daily lives and its future prospects in contributing to our quality of life, economy, and development will be touched upon, along with the part played by liquid fossil fuels in energy generation and their impact on the oil transportation industry.

The first background point to consider is the long-term viability of the energy industry in Canada. Like any product, the supply of energy is a response to demand. The overwhelming consensus, indeed near unanimity, is that the demand for energy will grow fairly constantly in the future. The International Energy Outlook 2010 report of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects the total world consumption of marketed energy to increase by 49 per cent from 2007 to 2035, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Given expectations that world oil prices will remain relatively high through most of the projection period, liquid fuels and other petroleum products are likely to be slow growth sources of energy due to public concern about the environmental impacts of fossil fuel use and strong government incentives for increasing the use of renewable energy in many countries around the world. However, liquid fuels remain the world’s largest energy source as shown in Figure 2. Despite advances in alternative energy forms, for the next few decades fossil fuels have no substitute as the prime source of energy.

Figure 2

To meet this rapidly growing energy demand, the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO), in its Annual Review and Report for 2009-2010, forecast the development of the worldwide tanker fleet to 2012. This forecast, in terms of dead-weight tonnage7 (dwt) and the number of ships, is shown in Figure 3. The trend highlights the burgeoning demand for oil and oil transportation services, which means the growth of the tanker trade nationally and internationally.

Figure 3


One of the main underlying premises influencing the preference to ban oil tankers is their potential adverse environmental impact in the case of collisions or other accidents. It is, therefore, important to fully understand the reality of tanker safety, both internationally and nationally.

Tanker safety consideration

Globally, there has been a marked improvement in tanker safety over the last four decades or so. Even during a period of growing maritime trade, improved codes of practice worldwide have caused a significant reduction in marine accidents and accidental oil-pollution incidents, as illustrated in Figures 4 and 5.

Figure 4 depicts the percentage of total oil spilled by volume, over the last four decades.


Figure 4

It is fairly clear that there has been a precipitous decline since the 1970s. In other words, Figure 4 separates the total volume of oil spilled over the last 40 years, by decades. Over half the volume, 55.6 per cent of the total amount of oil spilled, was in the 1970s. The percentage of the total drops to 20.8 per cent in the 1980s and remains fairly constant at 20.1 per cent in the 1990s. The percentage for the 2000s drops markedly to 3.5 per cent of the total volume of oil spilled over the 40-year period. Put simply, we are getting much better at accident-free transportation of oil for fuelling energy needs.

Figure 5 illustrates and contrasts the level of seaborne oil trade against the number of oil spills in excess of seven tonnes.

Figure 5


Seaborne oil trade has been growing steadily from 1970, except for a fall in the early 1980s during the worldwide economic recession. Beginning in approximately 1985, the two trend lines diverge, wherein large decreases are recorded in the number of oil spills while the volume of seaborne oil trade increased substantially. Although increased oil movement implies increased risk, the downward trend in oil spills demonstrates superior construction and regulatory standards and a keen sense of awareness, safety, and environmental consciousness.

Canada’s experience

The number of accidents in Canadian waters reported to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which is mandatory, has dramatically declined over the past decade by as much as 38 per cent. This includes accidents involving both Canadian and foreign-flagged ships in Canadian waters.

While marine shipping activity has rapidly grown in recent years to meet the world’s demands for goods and services, the number of shipping accidents involving Canadian vessels has steadily declined. Given the immense volume of goods transported by ships, the Canadian maritime safety record is impressive compared to the safety record of other modes of transportation and compared to the safety record of other countries. An analysis of trends along major shipping routes in nine countries during recent decades – on routes which experienced more than 25 oil spills over the past 40 years – is shown in Table 1 and Figure 6. Canada’s decreasing trend is obvious. It is much envied in the international shipping community.

Table 1


The data contained in Table 1 is impressive in terms of Canada’s performance (see Figure 6 for another view of this data). The number of spills by decade declined from a high of 18 in the 1980s to six during the 1990s, to zero in the 2000s. Canada tied with the Netherlands and Sweden for having recorded zero spills during the 2000s. Most other nations, except for South Korea, recorded meaningful losses and environmental damage through maritime oil spills.

Figure 6

To Canadians, the marine environment represents strong and deep ties to our heritage and, consequently, prevention of oil spills as the first line of defence is universally recognized as critical. Simultaneously, preparedness and response for unforeseen contingency situations have been established nationwide as a second line of defence by the development of a network of human and material resources for deployment to combat, contain, and minimize accidental damage to the marine environment.

The decreasing oil spill statistics bear witness to the success of Canada’s government and private sector partnership in respecting and preserving the integrity of the ocean resources, while promoting and encouraging trade and economic activity. A fundamental spirit of cooperation has blossomed and evolved through training, corporate understanding, mutual respect, and concerted action, which bodes well for enhanced future national economic development, and should therefore be bolstered by a supporting regulatory regime.

On the other hand, proscription measures, unless clearly and unequivocally justifiable, are likely to discourage investment and hamper economic growth and national progress.

Canada’s safety performance with respect to tanker transportation has improved over the last four decades, as has much of the maritime world. Canada is now a world leader in minimizing the number of accidents and oil spills in an environment of markedly increasing maritime transportation volume.

During the past few years, the Canadian federal government has undertaken and completed a number of important initiatives related to transportation policy and has increasingly recognized the critical role that marine transportation can play in achieving broader economic and social objectives.

To prepare for the challenges of the future, the Canadian regulatory regime continues to be proactive and aggressive in maintaining and enforcing high maritime standards. As the federal body responsible for the Government of Canada’s transportation policies and programmes, over the last two years (2009-2010), Transport Canada has:

  • ratified 11 international maritime conventions,
  • published 45 maritime regulations,
  • adopted the North American Emission Control Area,
  • assisted with the modernization of the Canadian Navigable Waters Protection Act,
  • amended the Canadian Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, and
  • developed various planning and performance management tools to enhance compliance and enforcement, education and awareness, programme management and the regulatory framework.

As has so often been demonstrated, partnership between business and governmental regulatory authorities in an environment of mutual understanding, awareness, and respect for safety and protection of our resources and heritage will benefit all parties and the nation, for a win-win outcome. Outright bans in fear of possible accidents without analyzing risks and returns are inherently detrimental to a healthy economy, high productivity, and efficient business operations, besides adversely affecting Canada’s international reputation and standing as an economic powerhouse. Canada’s status as a global role model for responsible progress and development must be preserved.

Environmental considerations

Integrally related to concerns over safety are considerations regarding the environmental impact of tanker accidents. This section discusses two key aspects of environmental concerns: ecologically sensitive areas and the environmental impact of alternative modes of transportation.

A maritime nation with the world’s longest coastline, Canada is bordered by three oceans, the Great Lakes, and an immense sea of Arctic ice. These natural environments support an intricate web of marine life. The federal government, along with the provinces and territories, is working to conserve Canada’s marine ecosystems through the development of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The designation and preservation of MPAs under a legal code enhances biodiversity and improves the health, integrity, productivity, and sustainable use of our natural resources, while contributing to the vitality of Canada’s coastal communities and industries.



The existing MPAs cover over 56,000 square kilometres of Canada’s oceans and the Great Lakes – roughly equivalent to the area of the province of Nova Scotia. Figure 7 shows the square kilometre breakdown of MPAs under federal, provincial, and non-governmental agencies. The total number of MPAs managed by each jurisdiction is shown in brackets on the left. Of the 797 current MPAs, 705 are under provincial jurisdiction, 83 are under federal jurisdiction, and nine are managed by non-governmental organizations or through co-management arrangements.

Canada’s major oil-handling ports and the ecologically sensitive waterways leading to them are highly efficient, with extremely low-risk cargo movement procedures. All these ports and waterways have areas of environmental and ecological sensitivity within their boundaries as well as in their vicinity, which have remained pristine and unspoiled despite decades of oil-handling activity.

These ports and waterways – including Vancouver, west-coast tanker lanes from Alaska, Hamilton, Montreal, Quebec, the St. Lawrence River, Saint John, the Bay of Fundy, Passamaquoddy Bay, Halifax, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, St. John’s, Come-by-Chance, Placentia Bay, and St. Mary’s Bay – have earned international reputations for their cargo-handling safety and environmental consciousness.

Their emergency response plans are supported by environmental assessments, continuous monitoring, and oil-spill trajectory modeling for rapid response, containment, and clean-up. In the highly unlikely event of the need arising, British Columbia’s Northwest Coast would be similarly protected by such rigorous control systems.

Compared to other modes of transportation, ocean shipping has significantly improved its efficiency. The implementation of new technological concepts like double-hulled oil tankers, container ships, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carriers, open-hatch forest-product ships, chemical carriers, and car carriers have revolutionized the way goods are moved. The high productivity of shipbuilding, a rise in the efficiency of hulls and propulsion systems, a reduction in manpower requirements through automation, and economies of scale brought about by large ship sizes are other improvements made in maritime transportation.

As shown in Figure 8, shipping is a comparatively efficient mode of moving cargo over long distances based on energy consumption. The high carrying capacity of marine tankers translates into low costs to customers and the consuming public when compared with other modes of transportation. For example, the typical cost to a Canadian consumer of transporting crude oil by sea on tankers from the Middle East, in terms of purchase price per litre of gasoline at the pump, is about half a cent.


Figure 8

The high efficiency of maritime operations also contributes to comparatively lower greenhouse-gas emissions per tonne-mile of cargo moved by ships than by other modes of transportation. This assures the sustainable and viable nature of commercial maritime activity. If we are to remain committed to leaving behind a responsible and rational trade and economic legacy for future generations, we have no option but to embrace the most efficient, safe, and cost effective mode of transportation.

Recommendations and conclusion

Canada’s renowned regulatory regime has provided powerful checks and balances to prevent the degradation of our natural environment. We are blessed with abundant natural resources, which are being sustainably developed. The commendable reputation of several of Canada’s oil-handling terminals, ports, and waterways is a source of national pride. As a littoral nation bordering three oceans and the Great Lakes, Canada has a vibrant maritime tradition. Even so, management and regulatory practices must be dynamic and keep pace with the evolving needs of maritime traffic growth, technological advancement, and trade diversification.

Four specific safety and environmental conservation recommendations are of particular significance to the oil and natural gas tanker-shipping industry:

The vitality and security of the marine environment is of paramount importance to all Canadians and any threat to it negatively affects all associated businesses. The consuming public, as the end-user of fossil fuel energy, wants assurances from all the upstream sectors of the oil industry: exploration, production, transportation, storage, distribution, and retail supply. The oil tanker transportation sector is therefore intimately concerned with events in any of the sectors that could be potentially hazardous to our national marine heritage. A chain, however, is only as strong as its weakest link. Responsible environmental stewardship is an imperative obligation for all the links of the oil supply chain.

As a consequence of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, Canada needs to strengthen the inspection and maintenance regime of offshore oil and natural gas exploration and production equipment, especially in view of Canada’s burgeoning offshore development activity on the east coast. Redundancy and fail-safe characteristics must be incorporated in blowout preventers, which should be constructed on the multiple-stack concept.

Short Sea Shipping is increasingly being recognized worldwide as a viable solution for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, alleviation of highway traffic congestion, and cross border trade facilitation, due to the high environmental and operational efficiency of the maritime mode of transportation. The promotion of Short Sea Shipping in Canada is especially vital due to the large volume of trade by road transportation between Canada and the United States. The increasing navigability of the Arctic waters and the Northwest Passage due to global warming reinforce the need to encourage Short Sea Shipping in Canada to service the northern communities and to exploit the natural resources of Canada’s Arctic region. Scientists predict an ice-free Arctic summer by 2030. Short Sea Shipping will significantly diminish the cumulative human footprint on the marine and terrestrial environments, and its advocacy is crucial for a sustainable future.

A national policy on places of refuge for ships in need of assistance is another recommendation worthy of urgent consideration. From a holistic perspective, shipping is a necessary trade activity that impacts the marine and coastal environment. With increasing developmental pressures on coastal areas, close interaction and co-operation between the maritime sector and users of the coastal and marine environment are essential and necessary. A national policy on places of refuge for ships in need of assistance would amalgamate the interests of all stakeholders, to provide an effective remedial solution in the unlikely event of a maritime emergency.

Lastly, responsible management of Canada’s environmental resources and growing maritime trade requires the establishment of a national risk-assessment strategy for Canada’s ports. Such a risk assessment strategy would identify the shortcomings (if any) of the ports in dealing with emergencies and offer suitable alternative plans to account for those shortcomings or provide the resources needed to upgrade the emergency response capability of the ports.

Bills proposing a ban on tanker traffic would effectively give politicians sweeping powers to curb an important source of economic growth for Canadians. Banning oil tanker traffic in coastal waters will not prevent the consumption of this essential source of energy. It will only force its delivery by other modes of transportation – an action that will increase its price and exacerbate environmental risk.

The health of Canada’s economy, communities, and ecology is irreversibly intertwined with the sustainable development of our natural resources. As a source of energy, fossil fuels have no alternative for the foreseeable future. The safety, cost-effectiveness and efficiency of marine tanker transportation have been exemplary, especially in Canada. We can continue to let the benefits of resource development percolate throughout our society, even as we provide resources to sustain and augment the vigour and biodiversity of our ecological heritage.

The solution to the problem of potential oil spills is not to ban economic activity, but to boost responsible activity. Canada’s commendable maritime regulatory and management regime strives to strike the right balance between responsible economic activity, safety, and environmental conservation. The designation of Marine Protected Areas ensures the awareness and understanding of preservation and protection of our rich environmental heritage.

To sustain this trend, potential areas of improvement can and must be constantly investigated and pursued. We can embrace measures that will reduce environmental risk in coastal areas, measures that make far more sense than Bill C-211, which forbids activity in a transportation mode with an enviable record for safety and sustainability.

The positive and beneficial consequences of tanker shipping far outweigh its negative and detrimental effects. New prohibitions will jeopardize our economic security with little or no environmental benefit.

Dr. Philip John earned his Ph. D. in Civil Engineering (Marine) at the University of New Brunswick. He is the Marine Fleet Manager of the Woodward Group of Companies of Newfoundland and Labrador. He also sailed for 12 years on commercial tanker vessels.



Category: Energy, Environment

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