A Burrard Inlet oil spill? Despite news of well blowouts and pipeline breaks, oil tankers are getting safer

A Board of Trade seminar last week on oil tanker safety drew protesters, who are legitimately concerned that increased traffic in Burrard Inlet could result in a catastrophic spill. (Interest in the issue exploded after the City of Vancouver’s July forum on spill risks in the inlet.)

Inside, executives of the city’s shipping business, which has a global reach, sat with maritime union leaders and others to hear Joe Angelo, deputy managing director of the Independent Association of Tanker Owners, describe the dramatic improvements in tanker fleet safety in the past 20 years.

Angelo and the demonstrators probably could agree on the goals of the association: zero fatalities, zero pollution and zero detention, the term used for the seizure of a vessel for safety or other infractions.

Since 1991, the global tanker fleet has gone from a majority of vessels with fragile single hulls to 95 percent double-hulled. That dramatic shift saw the average age of the fleet drop to eight years.

Those to factors produced a steady drop in incidents of oil spillage to record lows in both 2008 and 2009, despite increases in tanker traffic. The global fleet is also shifting to higher-quality fuels, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and much tougher construction and maintenance standards, to further reduce spill risks.

While the risk of a spill is not zero, the improvements in fleet safety may mean the debate on oil exports should shift to the bigger questions of how Canada is managing its energy resources in a period of global warming.