But Vaughan said the government only has management plans, training and equipment for oil spills of up to 10,000 tonnes. That's a vastly smaller spill than the potential spill from the supertankers expected to come to B.C., some holding up to 300,000 tonnes.
The Sierra Club Canada said the report was a "scary" confirmation of Canadians' "worst fears."
And, in the House of Commons, the New Democratic Party accused the Conservatives of playing "Russian roulette" on oil spill cleanup.
"This negligence means that our tourism, fishery and economies of our coastal communities are all being put at risk. Even one tanker (spill) could leave Canadian families on the hook for billions of dollars in cleanup costs," said Burnaby-New Westminster MP Peter Julian.
Vaughan called the gap between the expected maximum spill and the potential maximum spill "quite significant."
"We pointed out that given the risk involved, the federal government should go back and re-evaluate those risks, and then figure out if they have the right capacity, in the rare event there may be a tanker accident," Vaughan said in an interview after his report was tabled in Parliament.
His report said the government has confirmed to him that there is a "risk" that existing maritime liability limits for tankers - up to $1.3 billion per spill - "may not be sufficient in the wake of a major spill from a vessel in Canadian waters."
Vaughan told a news conference there are "some serious questions about the federal capacity to safeguard Canada's environment."
The federal government responded that it is reviewing the liability requirements.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper cited government measures announced last year to improve tanker safety and pipeline inspections.
"I think the government has already been clear that responsible resource development means that as we see the growth in resource development over the decades to come, there will have to be enhanced measures of environmental protection," he told the House of Commons, adding that Vaughan had made some "useful suggestions" for the government's "next steps."
Paul Stanway, spokesman for Northern Gateway Pipelines, said his company recognized from the outset there would be an increase in tanker traffic on the coast, and that's why his company's project includes offshore emergency response.
"With or without the Gateway project, we're going to see vastly increased vessel traffic on the north coast, and we need to be prepared for that,'' Stanway said Tuesday at public hearings on Northern Gateway in Prince Rupert. "This is not just about Gateway.... There is a need to address this issue.'' B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake agreed.
While Northern Gateway has said it will go above and beyond the regulatory requirements, it shouldn't be up to individual companies to do so, said Lake.
"We don't want a voluntary system. We want a regulated, legislated system that assures British Columbians that we have the best system available in the world to minimize risk and respond to any incidents.'' Vaughan's report also drew attention to the federal government's approach to the boom, especially in B.C., in hydraulic fracturing. The process, also called fracking, involves pumping a fluid, containing water, sand and chemicals, at high pressure deep into a well. The objective is to crack rock to release gas or oil inside.
Vaughan said the sector is largely under provincial jurisdiction, but said there is a need for the industry to tell Ottawa what chemicals are being used, so federal authorities can determine whether they pose a human health risk.
"There is no obligation for the industry either in exploration or drilling in hydraulic fracturing to disclose anything, because they're exempt from a federal inventory," Vaughan told The Sun.
"And so generally we've said if there's a boom in this sector - it's expected to double in the next 20 years - then you need to make sure environmental policies to identify and manage those risks keep pace with that boom. And right now they're not."
Vaughan, in his final report to Parliament before his term ends, also criticized Ottawa's lack of progress on developing marine conservation areas in B.C and across Canada. And it raised questions about how the dramatic Fisheries Act changes passed last year will affect the financial liability of corporations that are in a position to damage fish habitat.
He said the federal Fisheries department appears unaware of the impact that the recent sweeping changes to the federal Fisheries Act have on the corporate liability exposure of companies perceived to be putting fish habitat at risk.
He said the federal government has been advanced $120 million from companies since 2008 to cover costs of potential "compensation plans" needed to repair habitat damage that occurred under the old legislation, which protected both fish and fish habitat.
Vaughan said the 2012 changes, which limited habitat protection to "permanent" damage only to commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries, will likely reduce the need for companies to advance money to Ottawa.
The report also found that the government is "many decades" behind schedule in its pledge under a United Nations commitment to set aside, by 2020, 10 per cent of marine areas as marine protected areas (MPAs). So far, Canada has only protected about one per cent.
"We have established 12 marine protected areas," Tory MP Michelle Rempel, parliamentary secretary to Environment Minister Peter Kent, countered Tuesday.
"We know more work needs to be done. That is why we are having robust consultations with a variety of stakeholders to make sure we get things right."
[email protected], with files from The Canadian Press Twitter.com/poneilinottawa ILLUS: Glenn Baglo, PNG Files / Oil tanker Monterey is anchored off Cates Park in North Vancouver in 2010. The number of tanker trips from the West Coast will increase to 2,400 a year from 600 in 2010, according to environment commissioner Scott Vaughan.