Cantwell Demands Answers on Whether Coast Guard Ready to Handle New Canadian Oil Supertankers near Washington Shoreline

Cantwell: “It seems that Canada’s oil spill response plan in the Pacific Northwest is to call the Americans” Potential supertanker spill could damage thousands of miles of coastline, threaten Washington state’s coastal economy of 165,000 jobs ***VIDEO AVAILABLE***

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) demanded the U.S. Coast Guard perform an extensive analysis of cross-border readiness and ability to respond to potential spills given the potentially dramatic increase in oil tanker traffic along the U.S.-Canada maritime border off Washington state.

With Canada poised to increase oil supertanker traffic through the waters around the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Cantwell told the Coast Guard at an Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee hearing Wednesdaythat this fragile ecosystem “deserves a very robust oil spill response plan.”

An oil spill in waters in Washington state interior waterways could be devastating. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, a major spill would have a significant impact on Washington state’s coastal economy, which employs 165,000 people and generates $10.8 billion. A spill would also severely hurt our export dependent economy because international shipping would likely be severely restricted. Washington state’s waters support a huge variety of animals and plants, including a number of endangered species, all which would be harmed by a spill.    

“This is a major threat to our region,” Cantwell said at today’s subcommittee hearing. “It seems that Canada’s oil spill response plan in the Pacific Northwest is to call the Americans.  …Obviously any such spill in the narrow and heavily populated waters of the Puget Sound or Strait of Juan de Fuca would cause tens of billions of dollars in damage and impact millions of my constituents. … I think it deserves a very robust oil spill response plan.”

Cantwell secured a commitment of the analysis of Rear Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Assistant Commandant for Marine Safety, Security and Stewardship for the United States Coast Guard, who agreed to deliver the analysis to Cantwell at a later date. Cantwell initially requested a more general analysis of U.S.-Canada oil spill response agreements in her Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill in 2010.

Cantwell has been calling for spill prevention and coastal protection legislation since long before last year’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For nearly four years, Cantwell fought to enact a U.S. Coast Guard authorization bill that among other provisions, strengthens oil spill protections for Puget Sound and other U.S. coastal waters. The bill, which was signed into law on October 15, 2010, includes Cantwell-authored provisions that significantly enhance oil spill response and prevention to protect valuable coastal communities and their economies. 

The legislation expands the oil spill response safety net from Puget Sound out to the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, ensuring that Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca have spill response teams and equipment in place. The bill further reduces ship and tanker traffic in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary; enhances spill prevention efforts on vessels transporting oil; and establishes a stronger role for tribes. Cantwell also fought to include a provision that requires tug escorts for double-hulled tankers in Prince William Sound.

Approximately 600 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges travel through Puget Sound’s fragile ecosystem annually, carrying about 15 billion gallons of oil to Washington’s five refineries. The Strait of Juan de Fuca also has significant outbound tanker traffic originating in Vancouver and carrying Canadian oil. Prior to the 2010 Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill, American industry only had to position oil spill response equipment in Puget Sound, leaving the busy shipping lane in the Strait of Juan de Fuca unprotected. Cantwell’s provision extended the “high volume port area” designation west to Cape Flattery. As a result, oil spill response equipment, such as booms and barriers, are now prepositioned along the Strait, supplementing the response equipment already in place in Puget Sound.

The oil spill response provisions included in the Coast Guard bill follow previous efforts by Senator Cantwell to protect Pacific Northwest waters. For example, Cantwell championed federal legislation to help make the oil spill response tug at Neah Bay a year-round fixture funded by the oil and shipping industries. At Cantwell’s urging, the Coast Guard changed a federal regulation on December 21, 2008 which cleared the way for action in 2009 on legislation sponsored by State Senator Kevin Ranker and State Representative Kevin Van De Wege to permanently station a response tug at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This tug is the first line of defense for distressed supertankers in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Cantwell was also instrumental in 2006 in defeating former Senator Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) attempt to overturn the then 28-year-old protections authored by former Senator Warren Magnuson limiting oil tanker traffic in the Puget Sound. In 1977, Senator Warren Magnuson had the foresight to recognize the great risk that oil supertankers would have on the waters of Puget Sound. He put his findings into law and essentially banned supertankers in the Puget Sound by prohibiting the expansion of oil terminals in Puget Sound.

Watch a video of Senator Cantwell’s remarks and questions at today’s hearing.

High quality audio available upon request.