'Science' will tell what we already know

It should be evident to everyone by now that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apparent embrace of science last week was more like an Olympic wrestler's hold.

He said that the Northern Gateway pipeline approval depends on "an independent evaluation conducted by scientists into the economic costs and risks" associated with the pipeline. He said that it will be "evaluated on an independent basis scientifically and not simply on political criteria."

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A lot of people would have been more comforted if he'd put the word "environment" in there somewhere. After all, it's the environmental risk posed by the pipeline and increased tanker traffic off our coast that gives so many of us in B.C. the heebiejeebies.

The "memorandum" of Aug. 3 amending an "agreement" concerning the "joint" review of the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project lays it out starkly: It's a project, not a proposal, and the federal cabinet will decide whether it goes ahead, and faster.

The "memorandum" is addressed to the hapless public-office holders conducting hearings in B.C. and Alberta. That "joint" is an absurdity. Those conducting it are ligaments of one body - the federal government.

The "agreement" is between two officials of that same government, Environment Minister Peter Kent and the chairman of the National Energy Board, Gaeton Caron.

The review panel's mandate needs amending because, lo and behold, Parliament passed new laws to make environmental assessments subject to political whims and force Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity down our throats.

Just in case the review panel didn't get the urgency of completing its evaluation by Dec. 31, 2013, Caron informed it bluntly last week that he'd "take any measure I consider appropriate to ensure the time limit is met."

Holding hearings shouldn't be a problem because fewer people than expected are showing up to say their piece.

But what about the "scientific" evaluation? How, by the end of next year, is the panel to come up with what the Aug. 3 memo calls "any mitigation measures and follow-up programs" that it thinks should be undertaken "if" cabinet were to direct the NEB to give Enbridge the green light?

Some directions to the panel are scary. It's to consider, for example, "the environmental effects of malfunctions or accidents that are likely to result" and "technically and economically feasible" measures that would "mitigate any significant adverse environmental effects."

Oddly, it's also to come up with "measures to enhance any beneficial environmental effects."

Here's the hammer, though: Cabinet "will make the decision on the environmental assessment (whether the project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects and if so, whether such effects are justified in the circumstances)."

A Calgary columnist remarked petulantly last week that British Columbians are "suffering from a collective case of anticipatory anxiety." Damn right we are.

An oil "spill" isn't something that can be cleaned up with a paper towel. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency faced the first ever major spill of diluted bitumen into water (the Kalamazoo River) two years ago.

It found that the lighter chemicals in "dilbit," as it's called, evaporated and the bitumen sank to the bottom sediments. Skimmers and oil booms proved useless. Cleanup was estimated at 10 times the cost of conventional oil-spill cleanup.

If there is a supertanker accident off the coast, how does our reduced Coast Guard react? Enbridge's "shoreline protection consultant" says that, though Enbridge's liability ends at the end of the pipe, its spill "management plan" will be "state of the art," whatever that means.

The Western Canada Marine Response Corp. would likely be called in with the skimmers, booms, pumps and absorbent pads that are in caches along the coast.

The company has 22 employees, and would rely on other marine response companies around the globe to help. The company says it would take between six and 72 hours to respond, longer if there's a storm. By then, how much sludge is sinking to smother life on the sea bottom and washing ashore? Skimmers and booms don't do much in heavy seas, anyway.

We don't need "science" to warn us that we face "significant adverse environmental effects," which Harper may find "justified in the circumstances."

cruachan@shaw.ca

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