The National Energy Board's Northern Gateway joint review panel isn't expected to issue its findings until late this year but a report on the Canadian Coast Guard's woeful spill-response capability aren't likely to help the massive project's prospects.
The Canadian Press used access-to-information requests to turn up reports suggesting the coast guard is far from ready to cope with a major West Coast spill should a supertanker come to grief a la Exxon Valdez.
According to CP, two 2010 internal audits found the coast guard's capacity to monitor and react to an oil spills was outdated, disorganized and needing an overhaul.
Yet a March 2012 draft report prepared for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which oversees the coast guard, found recommendations contained in the reports to improve its capacity have not been implemented, CP reported.
Calgary-based Enbridge Inc.'s $5.5-billion project calls for a pipeline more than 1,100 kilometres long to transport Alberta oil sands bitumen across northern British Columbia to an export terminal at Kitimat, on the northern coast.
The marine component calls for double-hulled supertankers to thread their way slowly up and down a coastal inlet escorted by tugboats. Enbridge has promised to boost emergency response capabilities along the main northern shipping routes not just for its tankers but for all marine traffic.
The West Coast has been subject to a moratorium on tanker traffic since 1972 but if Northern Gateway goes ahead, more than 200 oil tankers would be expected to use the Kitimat terminal each year.
The 2012 report unearthed by CP found about 83 per cent of spill-response equipment across Canada is ready for use but most of it is outdated.
"Although operationally ready to respond, most of the assets held by the [emergency response] program average 25 or more years in service and have either become obsolete or are coming to the end of their useful life," said the report of the Environmental Response Capacity Definition Project.
"Maintenance is increasingly difficult as technical support and availability of parts are compromised."
It's reasonable to assume the energy board's review panel has access to this kind of information as it assesses the viability of Northern Gateway's spill-response plans.
The B.C. government was unimpressed by Enbridge's promises, citing inadequate spill response as a major reason for coming out against the project last week in its final submission to the panel. It's holding fire on a proposed major expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline into Vancouver until details are available but that project would increase tanker traffic into the city's Burrard Inlet oil terminal.
CP noted Canadian law requires polluters to pay for cleanup, with the coast guard overseeing the work in marine spills and maintaining its own spill-response capability.
But inadequate funding has allowed its equipment to become outdated, the report found.
"This has eroded response capacities and has raised questions on the current condition and overall effectiveness of [Canadian Coast Guard]'s response equipment," said the report.
The largest tankers can carry 200,000 deadweight metric tonnes of oil, CP reported.
Canadian regulations require shipping companies to have the capacity to clean up as much as 10,000 tonnes of oil. CP said federal briefing notes put the coast guard's Pacific region response capacity at 8,000 tonnes but the audit found the actual capacity to be less than 6,900 tonnes.
When the Exxon Valdez ran aground off Alaska in 1989, it spilled roughly 34,600 tonnes of oil into Prince William Sound.
[ Related: Renowned oil spill expert leaving Canada after cuts ]
Enbridge spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht said the company's spill-response commitments are above those Canadian law requires.
"Our marine spill response plan will improve existing safety and response readiness on British Columbia's coastline," Giesbrecht told CP via email.
"Naturally, this is something we hope can improve confidence and public support for our project."
The federal government, meanwhile, is promising to set up a "world-class tanker safety system" for Canadian coasts and set up a coast guard incident command system.
But opponents of Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's expansion who believe a major spill is a matter not of if, but when, aren't reassured.
"Even a 'world-class' system doesn't prevent the kind of risks that British Columbians are concerned about," Will Horter of the Dogwood Initiative told CP. "British Columbians would bear the burden."