First Nations will be invited to play an important role in dealing with oil spills, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said, on his first press conference in B.C. since taking over the portfolio from Joe Oliver eight weeks ago.
"Aboriginal peoples must be a partner in everything we do. From ensuring the safety of our pipeline systems, protecting our marine environment from incidents, and sharing in benefits of resource development...we are willing to walk with them on this journey," said Rickford, at the late afternoon, no-fan-fare press conference.
"This is more than fulfilling a duty to consult."
The Minister said First Nation's deep understanding of the land would be useful when dealing with oil spills. He also hinted this partnership would ultimately mean training programs for First Nations to do oil spill preparedness and clean-ups.
Rickford is a former Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, and has a professional history as a nurse and lawyer working with Aboriginal communities.
Coastal First Nations Executive Director Art Sterritt said while the intention was good, there was still much more work to be done.
"I met with [Minister Rickford] this morning, and indicated that government really needs to sit down and work with us on solutions... But the reality is, nobody is coming to the table and saying, 'hey, we've figured out how to clean this stuff up.' Until that happens, Coastal First Nations is not going to be in favour of moving oil through the north."
That said, he said Minister Rickford had a better sense of engagement than other cabinet ministers in the past.
"He understands us better than any minister we've ever had out here. He used to work as a nurse up in Klemtu. I do think he is serious about trying to work through this," Sterritt said.
The Minister also also asked about UN special rapporteur James Anaya's recent comment about a dire lack of framework in consulting with First Nations.
Rickford responded that the government was working toward the framework, based on recommendations of a report by Douglas Eyford, the prime minister’s special envoy on West Coast energy issues.
In the 2010 Kalamazoo Michigan oil pipeline spill, crews pumped water into the sediment to flush oil to surface - EPA photo
B.C.'s five conditions met?
Premier Christy Clark has long said, for Northern Gateway and other pipeline projects to be accepted by her government, it would need to meet five conditions, including world-class marine and pipeline safety regimes to address oil spills.
B.C. transportation Minister Todd Stone said he was "encouraged" by the federal oil transport measures.
"The announcements...by the federal government in our opinion represent very good steps in the right direction, in terms of developing world class spill preparedness and response guidelines."
"We compliment the federal government for the announcement."
"This is largely very congruent with a lot of the conditions that we have laid out, previously with respect to pipeline development," said Stone.
Not here to discuss Enbridge Northern Gateway
Rickford showed a flash of irritation as reporters continually prodded him with questions about whether this new announcement was in preparation for the government's decision -- widely expected to be approval -- of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
"You could say how people would think you're getting your ducks in a row," one reporter commented.
“I’m not going to be in a position to discuss specific projects," he said, brushing off requests for comment.
After more questions ensued, he said:
"You're trying really hard to get me to talk about Northern Gateway," and said the announcement today was unrelated to the decision on the controversial pipeline.
NEB to take over oil spill cleanup if a company can't?
Another major change announced, which Rickford did not speak in-depth about, was the increased power of the National Energy Board to hold companies accountable for oil spills. He said the Board would now be able to force companies to pay back costs for parties affected by an oil spill.
Yet at the same time, he said the NEB would be allowed to take over on oil spill response in the rare event that a company is unwilling or unable to do the cleanup. In principle, the government would pay for the initial costs, then slowly recoup the costs from industry.
"In these most exceptional circumstances, the government is prepared to cover the cost of initial response, and the National Energy Board will recover costs from the pipeline companies," Rickford said. The news release stressed that this would only be in rare exceptions, though the Minister did not elaborate further.
He stated that the government was also toughening up polluter-pay laws "to ensure that Canadian taxpayers would not be expected to foot the bill in the event of a major spill." Major companies were liable to pay up to $1 billion irrespective of who was at fault, which is slightly under the cleanup cost so far for the Enbridge Kalamazoo River spill in 2010. "Companies, in addition, will have unlimited liability when at fault," he said.
He said government would ensure that pipeline operators would have all the resources available to respond immediately in the event of an oil leak.
Rickford touted Canada's "99.999 per cent" safety rate of oil and gas transport, he said also it was a "critical time for natural resources", with new projects planned "to the tune of 650 billion dollars in new investment."
But Sterritt urged caution, and said more work needed to be done around pipeline safety and oil spill response.
"It's not just about holding companies liable," Sterritt said. "They just really haven't figured out how to clean this stuff up."
With files from Mychaylo Prystupa