Comment: NEB's failure on pipeline haunts us still

The shrill cries of condemnation emanating from the Alberta and Canadian federal governments in response to new restrictions on the transport of diluted bitumen announced by B.C. are deafening.

The burgeoning conflict began when B.C. announced the province would limit shipments of diluted bitumen transported from Alberta via the Trans Mountain pipeline pending an assessment of the possible impacts of a spill by an independent scientific advisory panel.

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The B.C. government’s introduction of such a precautionary policy would seem eminently reasonable. In essence, what the province has done is move to fulfil the responsibility that the National Energy Board deliberately and imprudently abdicated.

The NEB’s wilful decision arbitrarily to truncate the Trans Mountain review at tidewater and refuse to address marine impacts, as well as reject the most recent and relevant science regarding diluted bitumen, is coming back to haunt the provincial and federal governments aligned in opposition to B.C.’s new regulations.

As pro-Kinder Morgan pipeline politicians manipulatively play the hot-button national-interest card, their calculated attempt to compel a unified Canadian position, in this case by coercion and outright threats, will fail. British Columbians see through the national-interest platitudes, largely because arguments against the B.C. government’s proposed regulations are blatantly flawed.

Trans Mountain would deliver 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen daily to Vancouver from the Alberta oilsands. The pipeline would cross more than 500 streams in the Fraser River watershed, one of the world’s greatest salmon-producing rivers. Tanker visits would increase by 574 per cent above 2010 levels to 408 trips through Burrard Inlet, the Fraser estuary, the Gulf Islands, Haro Strait and Juan de Fuca Strait, every year.

The Salish Sea’s southern resident killer whales are endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, and Trans Mountain’s tanker route transects critical habitat necessary for their survival and recovery. Suffice to say, the NEB’s injudicious refusal to address marine impacts is no trifling matter.

Perplexingly, the current federal government endorsed the obviously deficient NEB review, contrary to campaign promises to do otherwise. This profound misstep has led to misrepresentation and confusion. When various federal and provincial politicians publicly assert that the science and evidence support the approval of the Trans Mountain expansion, they are either gravely misinformed, poorly briefed or deliberately spinning the facts to suit their respective agendas.

The reality is, nothing could be further from the truth, particularly when it comes to potential adverse impacts of a diluted bitumen spill in the marine environment.

As Raincoast Conservation Foundation has emphasized repeatedly, there is no such thing as world-leading or world-class oil-spill response, prevention and recovery. The existing yardstick is wholly inadequate, as estimates of open-water recovery by mechanical equipment are 10 to 15 per cent of the oil from a marine spill, at best.

The Canadian Coast Guard has also acknowledged the uncertainty around the effectiveness of spill response for the diluted bitumen that Kinder Morgan plans to transport, declaring it is “not aware of a scientific consensus regarding how these products will behave once introduced into the marine environment or the effects over time of the products being in the water. The Canadian Coast Guard therefore is uncertain if traditional oil-spill recovery methods would be effective.”

The coast guard’s fear that diluted bitumen could submerge or sink was reinforced by a U.S. National Academy of Sciences study considered the most authoritative assessment on diluted bitumen ever undertaken. However, the study was refused as evidence for the Trans Mountain review by the NEB, which questionably deemed the probative value as limited. The U.S. study concluded that diluted bitumen behaves very differently than other crude oils when spilled, therefore requiring a different, but undetermined, spill response.

If Trans Mountain had been subjected to an impartial and comprehensive assessment, the current dispute might have been avoided. The legal challenge Ecojustice lawyers have argued on behalf of Raincoast and Living Oceans Society contends the federal cabinet broke the law when it relied on the NEB’s report that used an overly narrow interpretation of the law to avoid addressing harm to endangered southern resident killer whales and their critical habitat, i.e. within the marine environment the NEB neglected to address.

Recognizing the serious limitations of the current assessment process, the federal government has just announced an overhaul, so why let the NEB’s faulty Trans Mountain review stand? And if the federal environment minister sincerely believes the Trans Mountain expansion would have been approved under her government’s proposed new review process, then that assessment scheme would, sadly, appear to be dead in the water.

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Paul C. Paquet, PhD, is Raincoast’s senior scientist.

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