BC Oil Pollution Prevention and Management

British Columbia Coast is over 25,725 kilometres (15,985 mi) long. That is roughly 10% of the Canadian coastline consisting of the most productive and diverse marine ecosystems in the world. We are all concerned about oil spills and the damage they inflict on our environment. As long as we use hydrocarbon products there is a potential of spills; therefore it is imperative that we understand the potential impact, understand how to prevent spills and protect our environment, and learn how to be active participant when needed.

Sources of oil pollutions

While our main concern is about spills that could happen due to transporting oil and shipping; there are other sources for oil pollution such as natural seeps, other ship-related activities (dry docking, scrapping, dumping of oily waste, etc.), and land-based sources (urban runoff and discharges from industry). Regardless of the source, we have to be ready.

Let's be ready

To be ready, we must have national and provincial regulations, contingency plans, trained personnel, and response equipment. Coastal communities, particularly First Nations, should also have their own local contingency plans and the capacity to deal with minor spills to protect their natural resources and the health of their communities. Scroll down to learn more about oil spill response and our programs in British Columbia.

British Columbia

Community Engagement

Because the majority of us have never been directly affected by an oil spill or involved in the development of related regulations and response plans, it is important to learn from other people who have experienced oil spills. We also need to learn about current and future regulations and response plans to ensure constructive dialog among all parties.

Oil spills can have disastrous consequences for society; economically, environmentally, and socially. However we can prevent potential oil spills from existing activities by strengthening and applying existing regulations. New projects must be carefully planned incorporating proper and effective response plans and building capacity to prevent and combat oil pollution.

Learning from history

Many of us may remember Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster or Deepwater Horizon oil spill; but how many would remember M.V. Heung Ryong that sank in Mayne Bay on October 26, 2003, most likely only the people of Toquaht Nation. Their commercial shellfish harvest was scheduled to open in Toquart Bay from December 4, 2003 to December 8, 2003, but was canceled due to fuel/oil contamination. The loss to Toquaht Nation in its aquaculture program start-up period was devastating.

These spills, large or small, help us to understand how to better deal with oil spills and highlight the areas where we can improve our capabilities and readiness in British Columbia. It is not only the government responsibility, we have to learn more and share our view in a constructive way to protect our environment.

British Columbia spills


Transport Canada is the lead federal regulatory agency responsible for the National Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime. The Canadian legislations that governs the Regime are Canada Shipping Act, 2001, Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, Oceans Act, and Fisheries Act. Canada is also an active member of the International Maritime Organization and has acceded to a number of International conventions that support the Regime. If a spill happens, Federal laws also establish a response system based on the polluter pays principle.

At the Provincial level, the Minister of Environment has the authority to require spill contingency plans from any potentially polluting operations in the province under the Environmental Management Act; however, marine activities fall under the purview of the federal government.

Local government has a responsibility to assess local risks, prepare emergency response plans, and to have a delivery capability commensurate with the types and level of hazard that exist in their community.

What is Oil?

Before we talk about contingency plans or response equipment, let’s learn more about oil and how its behaves when spilled into the environment so we can have realistic expectations of the response activities and outcome particularly in our coastal areas.

Oil is a complex mixture of mainly hydrocarbon components with differing physical, chemical and biological properties. The basic product, obtained from geological strata, is termed crude oil. A wide range of products is derived from crude oil. Examples in order of increasing density are gases, gasoline, kerosene, fuels oils, lubricating oils, residual fuel oils, asphalt and paraffin. The composition of crude oil depends upon the source and varies in consistency from a light volatile fluid to a viscous semi-solid. These differences become important in relation to the behaviour of oil spilled into the environment and subsequent clean-up operations.

Light Crude

These oils are highly fluid, often clear, spread rapidly on solid or water surfaces, have a strong odor, a high evaporation rate, and are usually flammable. They penetrate porous surfaces such as dirt and sand, and may be persistent in such material. They do not adhere to surfaces. Flushing with water generally removes them. In addition to being flammable, these oils may be highly toxic to humans, fish, and other biota.

Waxy Crude

These oils have a waxy or oily feel. They are less toxic and adhere more firmly to surfaces than light crudes, although they can be removed from surfaces by vigorous flushing. As temperatures rise, their tendency to penetrate porous substrates increases and they can be persistent. Evaporation of volatiles may lead to a heavy, sticky oils or to non-fluid oil residues and tar balls. Medium to heavy paraffin-based oils fall into this class.

Heavy Crude

These oils are characteristically viscous, sticky or tarry, and brown or black. Flushing with water will not readily remove this material from surfaces, but the oil does not readily penetrate porous surfaces. The density of heavy crude oils may be near that of water and they often sink. Weathering or evaporation of volatiles may produce solid or tarry non-fluid oils and tar balls. Toxicity is low, but wildlife can be smothered or drowned when contaminated.

Oil Products

Gasoline and light distillates

The best known light distillates are gasoline, naphtha and toluene. Since gasoline is in such widespread use, its characteristics should be noted. Gasoline is a lightweight material that flows easily, spreads quickly, and may evaporate completely in a few hours under temperate conditions. It poses a risk of fire and explosion because of its high volatility and flammability, and is more toxic than crude oil. Gasoline is amenable to biodegradation, but the use of dispersants is not appropriate unless the vapors pose a significant human health or safety hazard.

Kerosene and middle distillates

Middle distillates include kerosenes, jet fuel, light heating oils and diesel fuels. In widespread use is kerosene, a lightweight material that flows easily, spreads rapidly, and evaporates quickly. Kerosene is easily dispersed, but is also relatively persistent in the environment and very toxic.

Heavy fuel oils and distillates

The largest group of oil products is made up of the heavy distillates. These include heavy fuels, lubricating oils, transformer oils and hydraulic oils. No. 4 Fuel Oil is a medium weight material that flows easily and is easily dispersed if treated promptly. This fuel oil has a low volatility and moderate flash point, and is fairly persistent in the environment.

No. 5 Fuel Oil (Bunker B) is a medium to heavy weight material with a low volatility and moderate flash point. Preheating may be necessary to make it mobile in cold climates. This fuel oil is difficult to disperse. Trials in the Gulf of Mexico indicate that modern dispersant can disperse bunker.

No. 6 Fuel Oil (Bunker C) is a heavy weight material that is difficult to pump and requires preheating for use. This fuel oil may be heavier than water, is not likely to dissolve, is difficult or impossible to disperse, and is likely to form tar balls, lumps, and emulsions. It has a low volatility and moderate flash point.


Asphalt is a semi-solid sticky residue formed by the evaporation of the volatile oils that hold the residues in solution. It is the almost solid material that is left when oil is extensively weathered. It may be fluidized by heating. However, the cutback solvents that are use to keep it fluid during transport are flammable and toxic. If spilled into water, the cutback solvents will tend to float on, and dissolve into, the water while the heavier portion of the asphalt will tend to sink or in some cases remain suspended under the surface of the water.

Oil Spill Contingency Plan

The purpose of the Oil Spill Contingency Plan is to define procedures and tactics for responding to discharges of oil into the environment. Among the topics the plan should cover are: Resources at Risk, Risk Assessment, Response Strategy, and Responsibilities.

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Report a spill
For more information on how to report a spill or to download British Columbia Spill Reporting Mobile App.


Working together to protect our environment