Northern Gateway's self-described world-class marine oil spill response measures have yet to pass the test put forth by the provincial government.
During three days of questioning by the province at National Energy Board hearings in Prince Rupert Northern Gateway witnesses gave examples of response times in the event of an tanker spill, the methods they would use to recover the oil and the capacity their partners would have to actually do the clean up. Yet the answers the company gave didn't satisfy Environment Minister Terry Lake, who attended the hearings into the $6.5 billion plan to ship oil from Alberta to Kitimat for export.
"The plans they have are detailed for the inner part of the water way, but once you get into open ocean there's a real lack of detail there," Lake said. "The commitments they say they will make to world class standard are just voluntary commitments - they say they will do these things. What we feel as a province is that there should be legislation in place federally to ensure our standards as as high as anywhere else in the world."
Since the marine aspect of the plan falls entirely within federal government jurisdiction, Lake said the legislation needs to come from Ottawa. Because of the scope of the Northern Gateway project he would like to either see legislation fully in place or well on the way to being completed before the pipeline could get approved.
The Joint Review Panel looking at the environmental assessment could attach conditions to make the voluntary commitments enforceable without legislation, but Lake is concerned that those rules couldn't be applied to third parties, like ship owners.
Northern Gateway is taking the unprecedented step of leading the co-ordination of the marine spill response efforts, according to the company's spokesman Paul Stanway. He said it's not typical for a pipeline company to be involved in that phase of the project.
In the event of a spill, Northern Gateway would call upon it's own team as well as resources from Western Canada Marine Response Corporation and even local fishing boats who are manned with staff trained in oil spill response.
The company would use a variety of methods to try to contain the oil, from skimming the surface to using dispersants to conducting controlled burns. The exact mix of techniques would depend on where the spill occurred and the weather conditions at time.
Northern Gateway witnesses said the response plan has to be tailored to the north coast so it would not be possible to exactly copy a blueprint from another jurisdiction.
"We're quite confident what we're proposing is world class, the question is how you define that," Stanway said. "You don't want to get trapped into a definition for example related to the Exxon Valdez incident because a lot of that stuff is out of date. Even something five or 10 years ago is out of date."
NDP environment critic Rob Fleming wasn't in Prince Rupert for the hearings, but was following from afar. He said Northern Gateway wasn't able to provide enough detail in its answers that its response would be up to snuff. He said the environmental review process has "exposed a number of weaknesses in the application" but Northern Gateway's case has also been damaged by fallout from the 2010 spill in Michigan and promotional material provided by the company which removed islands from the Douglas Channel.
"These are all very poor practices that have come to light and I don't think British Columbians are impressed with them," Fleming said.
In addition to quizzing the company about spill plans, provincial government lawyer Christopher Jones also spent time asking about how diluted bitumen reacts in the marine environment.
"British Columbia remains concerned about that possibility and were not quite sure [or] quite frankly, entirely understand what Northern Gateways views are at this time even though theres a lot on the record," he said introducing a line of questioning on whether the products proposed to move through the pipeline will float or sink.
It's a critical issue as oil on the surface is much easier to clean up than oil that sinks.
Northern Gateway expert Alan Maki said their laboratory testing proves that Alberta dilbit is lighter than sea water and will float - unless it gets caught up with sediments close to shore.
"It simply cannot sink until you get something else physically entrained in it, be it fine particulate, bacterial biomass," Maki said.
The answers didn't convince Fleming, who said more research still needs to be done.
"I just don't think there's enough convincing research being presented by the proponent on the effect of dilbit in the environment," he said. " I think they're trying to minimize the risks to support their application."
Lake felt the expert answers didn't fully explain how oil would react in the waters of northern B.C.
"On one hand [Northern Gateway said] this question has been settled, one the other they're active in research to settle that question," he said. "There's not a lot of certainty in the knowledge around the way heavy oil behaves in cold-water environments."
After the province wrapped up its questioning of this witness panel on Thursday morning the Haida Nation began its cross-examination of the Northern Gateway witnesses. The Prince Rupert phase of the hearings are expected to last until mid-May, with the provincial government planning to cross-examine two of the remaining witness panels.