Funded by oil, new shipping safety research body promises independence

The formation of Clear Seas comes as the federal government and Alberta push for new pipelines to transport oil to marine ports 

In April, beaches in Vancouver were closed after a cargo ship spilled 2,700 litres of bunker oil | Rob Kruyt

The head of a new marine shipping safety centre says the organization’s research will be independent and unbiased, despite the fact that it is funded by Alberta’s energy ministry, the federal government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

“We were asked by one of the funders to pursue a specific research area, and we decided not to do that because it wasn’t a priority for us,” said Kate Moran, chair of the Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping.

“And we told the funders that was the case.”

The formation of the centre comes as the federal government and Alberta continue to push for new pipelines to transport oil to marine ports to be shipped overseas to markets like China.

Kinder Morgan’s proposal to twin its existing Trans Mountain pipeline and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project have met with strong public opposition in British Columbia; both projects would sharply increase the number of oil tankers plying B.C. waters. Concerns about shipping safety and accident response were heightened this spring when a cargo ship spilled 2,700 litres of bunker oil into Vancouver’s English Bay on April 8.

Clear Seas was formed by Port Metro Vancouver and by Moran, an ocean engineer and professor at the University of Victoria. It is receiving $3.7 million from the federal Ministry of Transport, $3.7 million from Alberta Energy and $3.7 million from CAPP. 

It has commissioned the Canadian Council of Academies to complete a risk assessment of shipping and plans to complete a socio-economic study of the benefits and risks of marine shipping as its second project.

Moran, who worked as a science and technology officer at the White House during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said Clear Seas will do research and make recommendations, which governments can then decide whether to act upon.

It will be important for Clear Seas to be completely transparent about its work and show it is independent from its funders, said Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society. But she said the centre’s mandate and research is sorely needed.

“I’m very interested in the work around risk assessment,” Wristen said. “They will be looking at risks in port as distinct from risks at anchor, risks underway, in populated areas and on the open ocean.

“In projects we’ve seen so far, the risk assessments treat that risk as though it’s the same everywhere and of course use the lowest possible number, which would be the risk on the open ocean.”

Wristen also hopes the data and models used will be made public, in contrast to the work presented by project proponents at export license or pipeline operating certificate hearings.

“It’s been based on proprietary models and proprietary data. There’s no way to get behind the output numbers to see if the methodology is at all reasonable.”

While the centre is funded by the oil and gas industry and by governments interested in shipping oil and gas, the centre will look at all aspects of marine shipping, said Richard Wiefelspuett, executive director of Clear Seas.

“What is the bigger risk? An oil tanker breaking apart, or 10,000 tonnes of heavy fuel escaping? What is the bigger risk? We don’t know,” Wiefelspuett said. “So we’ll look at all these risks.”