Vancouver oil tanker bylaw could run aground in legal waters
The City of Vancouver could face two choices in connection with council’s decision on May 2 with respect to pipeline operators and oil tankers using the Burrard Inlet.
It may have to either eventually back away from a face-off with Big Oil because of constitutional issues, or stay true to its avowed principles by going to court, according to a UBC associate law professor.
Ian Townsend-Gault explained the ramifications of council’s move to direct staff to prepare a bylaw requiring pipeline operators and tanker companies to carry enough liability insurance to compensate the city and local businesses in case of an oil spill.
In a phone interview today (May 4), Townsend-Gault noted first of all that he shares the city’s concerns about the potential effects of increasing the traffic of oil through the Burrard Inlet.
However, as a professor who teaches and researches international law and maritime-related subjects, he’s cognizant about the problems relating to having a bylaw as envisioned by council. Pipelines that cross provincial boundaries and tanker traffic are federally-regulated activities.
“I just see constitutional questions,” Townsend-Gault told the Straight. “I could see the companies saying, ‘We’re not doing this.’ And people going to court and huge court fights and lots of battles in the courts and legal expenses. I would have great doubts whether the city could do this.”
According to the UBC professor, council’s move “could be largely symbolic”.
“The companies will resist this,” Townsend-Gault said. “Therefore, either the city will have to back off, or the city has to go to court, and it could take years and could cost millions in legal expenses.”
He acknowledged that there’s “not many” legal tools cities can employ over federally-regulated activities.
However, cities can assert politically that they want to be heard in decision-making processes.
“It means that there has to be some dialogue about this,” Townsend-Gault said. “It means that the province and the federal government and the city need to be together to discuss what’s going on here.”
According to Townsend-Gault, the potential dangers of increasing oil traffic through the Burrard Inlet cannot be ignored.
“There are examples where ships—well-manned, well-equipped, and so on—something has gone wrong with them,” he said.
In a phone interview on May 2, City of North Vancouver mayor Darrell Mussatto said that he and his council are watching what Vancouver does.
According to Mussatto, his city is eager to “work with Vancouver to have similar bylaws”.
However, the North Vancouver mayor also recognizes that there are legal problems associated with this.
“Good question,” Mussatto told the Straight when asked whether such bylaws can be enforced. “I heard that their [City of Vancouver] lawyers said that there was some ability to enforce such bylaw. Unfortunately, provincial and federal regulations supersede municipal regulation. So it might be…more difficult.”