U.S. & Canada transboundary preparedness for a marine oil spill

The following is a letter to the Pacific States/BC Oil Spill Task Force conveying EnviroEmerg’s comments on the planning and response capabilities for marine oil spills on the U.S./Canadian Area of the Pacific Coast Project.  Report can be found at the Task Force web site.



January 12, 2011

Jean Cameron

Executive Coordinator

Pacific States/BC Oil spill Task Force.


My comments on The Stakeholder Workgroup Review of Planning and Response Capabilities for a Marine Oil Spill on the U.S./Canadian Transboundary Areas of the Pacific Coast Project Report are from a Canadian perspective and intended to assist in meeting the project’s goal of:


To review and document existing U.S./Canadian transboundary oil spill response plans and capabilities for the British Columbia/Alaska and British Columbia/Washington borders, acknowledging existing authorities and response management systems; and to recommend improvements as needed for both joint response and planning efforts, as well as for planning and capacity building within each jurisdiction. 


The project report is very extensive on information pertaining to the Canada-United States Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan (JCP) and its regional annexes CANUSPAC and CANUSDIX.  The project report reflects the challenges facing a transboundary oil spill.  However, the project report findings does not foster confidence that the United States and Canada are strategically and operationally prepared for such a spill event.  The JCP and its two annexes do not adequately incorporate the roles and capabilities of the shipping industry and its oil spill response organizations as described by each nation’s oil spill response regimes.  This is evident in the quote from the project report:


There is no specific reference to a “Responsible Party” in the Joint Contingency Plan (JCP) or the CANUSPAC and CANUSDIX annexes, although each document refers to the U.S. and Canadian national response systems, and both systems establish by law that the “Responsible Party” (RP) is responsible for conducting and funding the oil spill response and clean up.  


Furthermore, the JCP and annexes do not fully embrace the roles and capabilities of other jurisdictions such as the province, state, local governments (counties) and First Nations (Tribal Bands) that could augment a Responsible Party’s (RP) response under the Incident Command System and the Unified Command protocol.  This is particular true for the Canadian Coast Guard which has its own response management system and a policy to not endorse Unified Command.  The ramifications of Canada’s federal approach to a vessel oil spill is a common theme throughout my comments.  This concern is hardened by the findings of the 2010 report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the House of Commons on oil spills from ships that states:


Given the Canadian Coast Guard’s role as the lead responder to ship-source oil spills, the lack of an up-to-date national emergency management plan and model for responding to a major incident presents risks to the Coast Guard’s ability to effectively coordinate and oversee a response to a major incident. The Coast Guard recognizes that its plan needs updating and is developing a National Environmental Response Strategy that is expected to be in place

by March 2011. The strategy is to be followed by the development of a national response policy and plan for directing its efforts, including those related to a major incident.


The isolation of the shipping industry and other jurisdictions strategic role in the planning and preparedness for a transboundary oil spill incident reduces the value of the JCP and its annexes in oil spill preparedness and response.  


To the credit of the project’s working groups, they have obviously tried hard to address the response preparedness gaps and to provide insights into seeking solutions.  However, the solution rests not only with the USCG and CCG, but also with the shipping industry.  The shipping industry needs to explain, plan and prepare for a transboundary oil spill using the principles and organizations of the Incident Command System and Unified Command as the guiding framework and building on their regional response capability already in place.  It is not prudent to shift response paradigm in order to address different types of spill incidents, even if there are institutional challenges such as those created by an international border.  Many statements within the JCP and its annexes infer a change in spill response management from the ship owner to the Coast Guards if there is a transboundary oil spill.  


The Task Force should be putting less effort towards persuading the US and Canadian Coast Guards to address or clarify the issues identified in the project report.  Instead, Task Force efforts should be directed more toward the shipping industry and its Response Organizations to:


  • Recognize the differences between the US and Canadian approaches and capabilities to manage an oil spill;
  • Develop an industry-based position and policy on the such important matters of using the Incident Command System, endorsing Unified Command, integration of Incident Management Teams, and locations of Incident Command Posts;
  • Facilitate cross-boundary movement of response resources in particular when it comes to on-water operations and the transfer of oily wastes;
  • Establish compatible Joint Information Centres and Liaison Offices in organization and function, and
  • Exercise transboundary vessel casualties and spills 


The role and capabilities of oil spill response organizations in Canada and the United States were part of the project’s work.  In British Columbia, there is only one Transport Canada certified Response Organization (RO): Burrard Clean Operations (BCO) - a division of the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation.  BCO has been exemplary in using the Incident Command System as an emergency management approach to build organizational skills, as well as relationships within the spill response community.  It has met and often exceeded the federal spill preparedness and planning standards required for RO’s to maintain its certification.  These standards are stipulated in Response Organizations Standards as referenced under the Canada Shipping Act regulation.  


The Task Force members should be aware that the existing Canada Shipping Act (CSA) regulations will be repealed and replaced by new environmental response regulation and standard.  The changes are largely administrative rather than substantive whereby:

  • The Response Organizations & Oil Handling Facilities Regulations and the Environmental Response Arrangements Regulations will be consolidated into one Environmental Response Regulation;
  • The TP 12401, Response Organizations Standard; and TP 12402, Oil Handling Facilities Standards will be consolidated into one Environmental Response Standard.


The current and proposed revised Response Organization planning and preparedness standards by Transport Canada will not likely meet public expectations or that of other jurisdictions.  A review of the new Environmental Response Standards shows no evidence of any substantive change from when they were first established in 1995. They do not reflect lessons learned from spill events.  There are deficiencies in the federal RO standards - both existing and proposed - related to:


  • Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation;
  • Managing a large oil spill workforce;
  • Final oily waste disposal;
  • Alternative response methods such as in-situ oil burning and dispersant use.
  • Response to petroleum products not currently defined as “oil”


Furthermore, a Canadian Response Organization’s services focus on the spill component of a vessel or oil handling facility accident – not on the casualty itself.  An RO does not undertake the following consequences of a vessel casualty:


  • Salvage (emergency repair),
  • Firefighting,
  • Lightering (removal of cargo and fuels);
  • Cleanup of non-oil pollutants such as hazardous materials, containers or bulk goods;
  • Response to oils not stipulated under Canada Shipping Act such as biofuels, condensates, canola.


Consequently, Canada has a limited oil spill response regime, and does not have meaningful capability to manage a vessel casualty.  Many of these limitations were noted in the project report.


The reason for dwelling on the Transport Canada oil spill standards - both current and proposed - is that a shipowner as the Responsible Party is highly reliant on a Response Organization that prepares within the standard’s framework and functions within its constraints.  Many of the Canadian response gaps and deficiencies discussed by the project’s working groups go to the root of these standards, such as Canada’s weaknesses in responding to oiled wildlife, in planning to manage oily wastes, and deciding whether to use dispersants and in-situ oil burning.  Both Canadians and our neighbouring Americans cannot expect substantial and timely improvements in these operational areas so long as the proposed Environmental Response Standards drafted by Transport Canada show no measure of continuous improvement over the last 16 years.  Reflecting on lessons learned from major oil spills worldwide is vital in drafting legislation and standards.  Lesson evaluations are particularly important as Canada has never tested the current standards to its 10,000 tonne oil spill planning benchmark.  The Task Force’s Project Report helps point to the right direction on what Canada needs to do to prepare for a major oil spill, whether in internal or international waters.


Thank you for the opportunity to review your project report. 




Stafford Reid

EnviroEmerg Consulting

Duncan, British Columbia



EnviroEmerg Summary Comments.pdf
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