Concerns south of the border over oil tanker traffic from British Columbia have spurred a U.S. Coast Guard review of proposed increases in Canadian oil exports.
A legislative amendment proposed by Washington state Sen. Maria Cantwell and signed into law by President Barack Obama a couple of weeks ago gives the U.S. marine safety agency six months to conduct a risk assessment of the planned expansion of oil pipeline capacity to the West Coast.
While several proposed projects would see oil from the Alberta oil sands brought to the B.C. coast for export primarily to China, the legislation deals specifically with tanker traffic out of the Vancouver area.
"According to reports, Canada is poised to increase oil tanker traffic through the waters around the San Juan Islands and the Juan de Fuca by up to 300 per cent," said a statement issued by Cantwell's office.
"A supertanker oil spill near our shores would threaten Washington state's thriving coastal economy and thousands of jobs," the Democratic senator said in the statement. "This bill will provide crucial information for Washington coastal communities by requiring a detailed risk analysis...."
The Coast Guard will study the risk of transporting oil via supertanker, tanker and barge through the Salish Sea waterways, which encompasses U.S. and Canadian territorial waters between southern Vancouver Island and the mainland. It includes Juan de Fuca Strait, the Strait of Georgia, Haro and Rosario Straits and Puget Sound.
In order for ships to arrive at port in Vancouver, they usually sail through U.S. waters next to a national marine sanctuary.
The Coast Guard will examine which rules and regulations apply to oil tankers heading to B.C. ports, as well as analyze the toxicity of what is referred to in the legislation as "tar sands" oil -- a derogatory moniker much opposed by the Canadian industry.
Cantwell said the diluted bitumen that will form part of the Canadian oil exports are likely to require special cleanup technology, and the Coast Guard will also assess the spill response capability.
There are two major oil pipeline proposals currently on the table in British Columbia.
Calgary-based Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline would transport oil from the Edmonton area to a tanker port in Kitimat, on the north coast and Kinder Morgan's proposal to expand the capacity of its existing oil pipeline from Alberta to the Vancouver area.