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Politicians slip up on oil spill response

Elected officials were tweeting comments even while the coast guard was delivering its first briefing on the spill.

Picture yourself as a politician in the hours after a ship fouls Vancouver’s English Bay with oil. Nobody is very clear about the circumstances or the details.

All that is known is that a spectacular stretch of water has a slick on it and the urban beaches are showing traces of oil.

The media want reactions and you’re obligated to say something.

Here are your options:

A: Beg for time and refrain from commenting until you know what you’re talking about.

B: Say that, at first glance, it doesn’t look so bad and praise the crews trying to clean it up.

C: Condemn everything that’s happened, raise hell about the response and demand everything be done better.

Option A is a non-starter. It’s 2015 and everything happens in real time. Asking for time to understand what’s going on leaves you dead in the water. If you’re an elected official, you’re presumed to be in the know. So you better act like it.

Some politicians were tweeting comments even while the coast guard was delivering its first briefing on the spill.

The news cycle runs in milliseconds now, so you’ve got to offer something instantaneously.

Option B wouldn’t work because of the context behind the spill. It’s valid to observe that a few thousand litres spilled from a grain ship is comparatively minor.

And the coast guard insisted Monday it’s all contained and there are only negligible amounts left to be scrubbed.

But a politician who tries to appear confident and optimistic after an oil spill is playing a difficult hand. A marine oil spill is a visceral event, and the more scenic the locale, the more emotional the response. People demand that any spill be treated as a crisis.

So reassuring everyone that it’s a minor problem that will be cleaned up soon will backfire on any official who adopts that stance. It implies that you have a tolerance level for spills. No one else seems to, so your environmental credentials will be viewed with suspicion.

And comparing it to what might have been draws attention to the lurking issue of the proposed Kinder Morgan oil pipeline to the harbour and the prospect of increasing tanker traffic from five a month to about 34.

If you say: “It could have been worse,” people will think literally: “Yes, it could have been much worse.” The remark would have the exact opposite effect than intended.

So the best political response is Option C, which is the stance virtually all the provincial politicians took last week. They continued holding to that position Monday in the legislature, with another barrage of criticism about how the spill was handled.

A side-argument even broke out, with Green MLA Andrew Weaver fuming off-camera about NDP efforts in fighting pipeline proposals.

B.C.’s ranking MP, James Moore, is about the only politician defending the response, and he’s only doing it because he’s obligated to defend the (federal) coast guard.

NDP Leader John Horgan branded it “chaos and confusion.” With all the provincial politicians on the same page, Environment Minister Mary Polak said he’d “get no argument from me.”

Horgan demanded to know why anyone could have confidence that a significant spill would be addressed properly. The response in essence was: They can’t.

B.C. Liberals have insisted for years that world-class response capabilities are prerequisite for any B.C. approval of new pipelines and Polak said: “We don’t yet have it.”

Hours after coast guard commissioner Jody Thomas said she was enormously pleased with the response, Polak said: “The absence of their leadership in the beginning phases of the response was absolutely unacceptable.”

If there is any credit to be given for the quick cleanup, Polak said it’s because provincial officials repeatedly demanded action in the early hours and actually had to ignore protocols at the incident command centre and make decisions in the absence of coast guard leadership.

The one upside is more pressure to upgrade response capabilities. But whether the criticism is valid or just posturing from people playing it safe politically will depend on the final report of how it was handled. Polak told the legislature the post-incident response will be made public.

It should be an interesting read.