The federal government introduced new guidelines Monday aimed at improving safety for oil tankers, but Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver denied claims from critics that they were designed solely to get two proposed pipeline projects approved.

Oliver and Transport Minister Denis Lebel announced the “Safeguarding Canada’s Seas and Skies Act” at a news conference in Vancouver Monday afternoon.

In addition to the bill, Lebel announced another eight measures designed to bring Canada closer to having “a world-class tanker safety system.”

The new legislation, which amends the Canada Shipping Act, includes provisions that:

  • require oil-handling facilities to develop and submit to the federal government pollution-prevention plans;
  • create new penalties under the Act that can lead to heftier fines;
  • make it easier for enforcement officers to issue fines;
  • remove legal barriers that may prevent agencies from responding to an emergency, such as a spill.

The eight additional measures include more inspections for foreign-flagged tankers, expanded aerial patrols over coastal waters that can spot as little as one litre of oil in the ocean, and a new Coast Guard-led emergency response system.

Oliver denied that the government’s larger objective is to get regulations in place that will increase the likelihood that the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipeline projects will be approved.

“The objective is to make any development safe for Canadians and safe for the environment,” Oliver told CTV’s Power Play on Monday.

“So everything we’re doing on the environmental side has that objective in mind. The consequence will be that regulators will take a look at our safety system and make a determination about whether it’s adequate for the particular project involved. This isn’t designed specifically for the Northern Gateway project, but I imagine that the panel will take into account what we’re doing.”

The new measures announced Monday also designate the port of Kitimat, in northern B.C., a public port, which makes it subject to more stringent safety and traffic control standards, a move that could extend to other ports.

Lebel also announced the creation of a new oil tanker safety panel, which will look at other ways to improve the tanker safety system.

Lebel told reporters that B.C.’s coastline and waterways “are known throughout the world,” and are not only a playground, but helped build the province’s economy.

“Our waters must be protected,” Lebel said, “and they will be protected.”

Conservationists are concerned about the potential environmental impacts of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to the B.C. coast, as well as the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.

Environmentalists are concerned about the ability to respond to a spill should one occur.

NDP MP and environment critic Megan Leslie accused the federal government of having “gutted” environmental regulations, and dismissed the proposal for an expert panel to study tanker safety.

“It doesn’t take an expert to know that we need robust environmental legislation to prevent spills from happening,” Leslie told Power Play.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said super tankers have not been allowed near the northern coast of B.C. since the early 1970s, and she fears the new guidelines are designed to change that.

“This is all about trying to get super tankers the length of the Empire State Building in and out of some of the most hazardous navigational challenges that you can find anywhere on the planet and they’re on the northern coast of British Columbia,” May told Power Play.

Oliver told reporters that with natural resources accounting for 20 per cent of Canada’s economic activity and investment in major natural resource projects expected to hit some $650 million over the “the next decades,” environmental regulations must keep pace.

“If Canadians are to benefit fully from this resource potential, market diversification is essential,” Oliver said.

“Our products need to reach buyers in Asia, the United States and around the world. We have an opportunity to ensure that our products, particularly oil and liquefied natural gas, reach world markets and command world prices. Our government knows that to be an energy superpower, we need a world class safety system for our waters.”

According to Oliver, Canada loses as much as $22 billion each year because the U.S., the largest buyer of Canadian oil, pays less than other markets. Markets throughout Asia, he said, also pay more for natural gas.

He noted that while “tough negotiations” to open up those markets are still ahead, the economic opportunity for Canada “is staggering.”

However, he said the government will only approve resource development projects that can be done “safely.”