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Environment

The Canadian Government Wants You to Believe They Have Oil Spills Under Control

The feds have commissioned a new booklet to help ease concerns about oil spills and environmental apocalypses.

by Justin Ling
Jan 13 2015, 4:47pm

Oil tanker spill south of New Orleans. Photo via Flickr user DVIDSHUB

Do you have any good ideas on how to prepare First Nations, western Canadians, and the nation at large, to deal with the millions of litres of oil seeping onto their coastlines?

If yes, then the federal government would love to hear from you. Because it needs to convince British Columbians—and especially First Nations—there's no real risk from the Northern Gateway oil pipeline project.

In a Request for Proposals posted to a government tendering site, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced that it was seeking a private company to produce an information guide that, according to the request, "would be used as a communications tool for informing Aboriginal and coastal communities and the general public" about how Canada plans to deal with the possibility of oil spills off the coast of Canada.

While it's a competitive bidding process, the government expects the whole thing to come in under $90,000.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is responsible for this part of the plan, told VICE the information guide is being designed to "improve understanding of Canada's ability to prevent, prepare for, and respond to ship-source oil spills."

Since shipping traffic in all of Canada's three bordering oceans promises to pick up drastically in the next few years, it's probably good timing. Just five years ago, the Commissioner of the Environment warned "the federal government is not ready nor prepared for a major [oil] spill."

Now, the government contends, it is ready. And it wants the world to know.

Ottawa has been piecing together a strategy for the past few years, lamentably dubbed the "Ship-source Oil Spills Preparedness and Response Regime" (or, if you'd rather, SOSPRR), which is looking to create a framework for how tanker traffic travels along Canada's coasts, and how the government will respond if one of them leaks oil. Part of the recommendations for the government's strategy includes an information document to inform coastal residents.

The communications plan the government is looking to embark on is centered on three objectives: let the public know about the risk of oil spills, tell those affected what the government is doing to prevent a spill and what they'll do if one occurs, and inform the public about measures it's taking to reduce tanker-created pollution.

While that may sound pretty altruistic, some of the fine print of what the government is looking for might give environmentalists pause.

For one, whoever gets contracted to produce the guide will do so with the understanding that they'll need to "outline the low level of risk of a ship-source spill in Canadian waters," and that the government's strategy for preventing and dealing with them is "comprehensive."

Perhaps it's unavoidable that a government education program would verge on self-promotion.

"The root of what's coming out here is positive," said NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie. "It makes sense to educate people what is in place."

Especially, Leslie says, when the government's oil spill and tanker safety plan is such an about-face from what was previously in place—nothing.

"There's nowhere to go but up," she said, but added that it's hard to read the tender notice without "a healthy dose of skepticism."

Who the education plan is targeting is particularly interesting.

The request reads that "the contractor needs to take into consideration that although the Guide would first be distributed to Aboriginal and other coastal communities in northern British Columbia, it will be national in scope and disseminated across Canada."

It's interesting that the government plans on targeting northern British Columbia since the report notes that most tanker traffic is in the southern half of the province. It would seem to suggest that Ottawa is looking to launch an education plan with the Northern Gateway pipeline in mind.

Leslie says that raises her eyebrows.

The Harper government, of course, approved the Northern Gateway project amid controversy in June, though it did impose hundreds of conditions on the project. Northern Gateway will see supertankers enter the Douglas Channel in northern BC—moving tar sands crude to Pacific markets.

The government is no doubt aware of the recent Nanos poll showing more than a third of BC residents fear the Northern Gateway project could lead to an oil spill. That's a fear fuelling opposition to the plan, with only 29 percent of British Columbians wanting approval—the rest of BC's population is split between wanting a decision delayed and having it killed outright.

Interestingly, nearly half of the province says the Harper government's support for the project would make them less likely to support the Conservatives. When it comes to credibility, more British Columbians trust Enbridge, the company building the pipeline, than trust the Harper government (49 percent versus 46 percent), while First Nations and environmental groups are viewed as significantly more credible.

Other parts of the request suggest that a prospective contractor should consider identifying "potential risks and opportunities (e.g. environmental, social and economic risks; employment and economic opportunities.)"

Ottawa posted the notification last Thursday and will decide on the winning bidder in February. After that, the contractor will have seven months to do the research, draft a guide, tour communities on the country's east and west coasts to workshop the document, then present it to government bureaucrats before editing and finalizing the guide. It's about as breakneck as things get in the public service.

Coastal residents, especially First Nations, will be able to see the plan sometime early next summer, when the company will be required to present its nearly-finished document in half-day sessions run by the government to, as the tender puts it, "seek input from usability testing groups participants." In other words: they'll be running focus groups.

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