The federal government introduced new measures Tuesday to strengthen its oil-spill response plan in advance of key decisions on proposed pipelines that would see a sharp spike in tanker traffic off British Columbia's coast if they are approved.
But under the proposed changes, Ottawa stopped short of adopting a recommendation from an expert panel that potential polluters should face unlimited liability in the case of an oil spill from one of their tankers.
Instead, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said the government will remove the existing liability limit of $161 million under Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund. The full amount for a single accident will be made available from the fund, which the government says currently stands at about $400 million.
"With these changes, Canada will have the most robust and comprehensive liability and compensation system for spills from ships anywhere in the world," she said in Saint John, N.B.
"We want to make sure that if there is a spill ... that it is not the Canadian taxpayer, that it is the polluter who pays at the end of the day."
She added that up to $1.6 billion would be available in compensation and to cover damages in the event of a spill through the ship owners' insurance, and domestic and international funds.
Raitt added though that if all of those funds have been exhausted, Ottawa would provide compensation and then recover the money from the industry through a levy.
The government is also creating new "response planning partnerships" in four areas across the country, including southern B.C., the Bay of Fundy, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and around Port Hawkesbury, N.S.
It will also amend legislation to allow more chemical dispersants and the burning of spilled oil during an emergency.
The report on tanker safety done last year by a three-member panel of experts made 45 recommendations for improving Canada's preparedness for oil spills from tankers and barges.
It was the first major review of Canada's ship-source, oil-spill regime since it was implemented in the mid-1990s and forms a key part of the federal Conservative government's efforts to reassure Canadians about the impacts of an energy resource boom.
The 66-page report notes that two current pipeline proposals alone — by Enbridge (TSX:ENB) and Kinder Morgan — could bring another 600 tankers through British Columbia waters, while posing new hazards by transporting diluted bitumen and liquefied natural gas.
Several First Nations and environmental groups are opposed to the two projects, arguing they could lead to spills that despoil the B.C. coastline.