Senators defeat Ottawa’s oil tanker ban bill in rare move, putting legislation on life support

Senators defeat Ottawa’s oil tanker ban bill in rare move, putting legislation on life support
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OTTAWA — In a rare legislative move on Wednesday, the Senate transport committee voted to defeat the Liberal government’s moratorium on oil tankers in northern B.C., putting the controversial bill on life support after years of political wrangling.

A vote against the bill by Independent Sen. Paula Simons, along with the five other Conservative senators on the committee, swayed a final decision in favour of recommending that the senate nix Bill C-48, which effectively bars any oil tankers from entering northern B.C. waters.

The move does not immediately kill the oil tanker moratorium, but a vote by the senate to adopt the committee recommendations would stop the legislation in its tracks. A vote on the report is expected in coming days.

A decision to strike down the bill would provide major relief for oil and gas interest groups, the Alberta government, and some First Nations communities, who have been intensely opposed to the legislation. Opponents of the bill said it unfairly discriminated against oil pipelines that aimed to ship oil from ports along the northern B.C. coast, and even targeted Aboriginal communities who wished to capitalize from natural resource development.

A failure in the oil and gas sector to build major oil pipelines in recent years has helped stoke deep angst in the oil-rich province of Alberta, seeding distrust over Ottawa’s stated plans to introduce policies that supported both the economy and the environment.

Senator Simons said she decided to vote down the bill after the committee failed to accept a number of amendments that would have struck a more equal balance between competing environmental and industrial interests.

“I went to tonight’s meeting with the hopes we could accept amendments that made the bill more fair to the Nis’ga Nation and to the province of Alberta,” she said in an emailed statement. “When it became clear that those amendments would not pass, I felt I could not, as an Alberta senator, vote in favour of the bill.”

One of the most prominent voices against C-48 is Calvin Helin, the CEO of Eagle Spirit Energy Holding, an Aboriginal-led group that has sketched out plans to build a roughly $18-billion oil pipeline from northern Alberta to Prince Rupert, B.C.

The group had lobbied the federal government to shelve Bill C-48, and formed a coalition of First Nations groups that vocally contested the legislation during a December tour in Ottawa.

“Is this what reconciliation is supposed to represent in Canada?” Helin said at the time, referencing the First Nations’ communities’ inability to produce and transport the natural resources they lay claim to.

I went to tonight’s meeting with the hopes we could accept amendments that made the bill more fair

Bill C-48 was introduced as part of a promise made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he approved the Trans Mountain and Keystone XL pipelines, under the condition that a moratorium on oil tanker traffic be placed on northern B.C. Trudeau also rejected the Northern Gateway project at the time, which would have cut through the region the tanker ban would protect.

Some coastal First Nations and environmental groups argue that oil shippers cannot yet guarantee they could fully clean up a spill in ocean waters, making transport of crude oil too risky.

Senators have proposed hundreds of amendments to Bill C-69, which would overhaul the review process for major oil projects like oil refineries and nuclear plants. It has been intensely opposed by governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, as well as industry groups.

Senators also proposed deep and structural amendments to Bill C-48, including the designation of a specific shipping channel, or “corridor”, to Prince Rupert that would allow for oil tankers to move through — a proposal roundly rejected by environmentalists and some coastal First Nations, who supported the ban.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau told committee members on Tuesday that he was open to amendments to the bill, but rejected any suggestions of an exempted shipping channel.

“The analogy is a café where there is no smoking but one table is allowed to smoke,” Garneau said. “You can’t guarantee any spillage will stay in that corridor.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has also heavily criticized Bill C-48, and has threatened to launch a constitutional challenge against Ottawa if it refuses to shelve legislation that he says will destroy the Canadian natural resources sector.

Some experts who testified during hearings on Bill C-48 said legislators could better protect Canadian coasts from oil spills by simply adopting more international safety standards, which place stricter regulations on shippers.

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