The National Energy Board and Trans Mountain: Foxes in the Chicken Coop?

“Rally against Kinder Morgan oil pipeline on Burnaby Mountain” by Mark Klotz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Gord Coulson

On August 30th, 2017, CBC reported that the National Energy Board (NEB) had determined that Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline project had met all 157 conditions imposed on its application and approved the Burnaby, BC terminal for expansion.  This will be done to accommodate the twinning of the existing pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby, transporting diluted bitumen (dilbit) from the Alberta tar sands.  The Burnaby terminal is located on the traditional territory of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and will increase tanker traffic sevenfold in Burrard Inlet and English Bay.  If a major spill were to occur, the results would be devastating for the Vancouver area coastline and ecosystems.  But why is the NEB, half of whose members are oil company people, evaluating projects for environmental impact?

We have to go back to 2012.  Up until that year, environmental assessments were completed by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), which had the expertise.  Stephen Harper, then Prime Minister, in Bill C-38, stripped it of this responsibility, and gave it to the National Energy Board, which didn’t.  Harper had also fired many government climate scientists and according to CBC, put strict limitations on communicating research results on those that remained.  According to the National Observer, “Half of the [NEB] board’s 12 members are now oil and gas professionals, and all but one were appointed by the Harper government since 2006.”

To assess Trans Mountain’s application, a three person panel of NEB members was appointed and hearings were held in BC and Alberta.  According to Elizabeth May, the process was severely flawed.  Her application for Intervener status took two years.  There was no cross-examination allowed on Trans Mountain’s evidence, and so the reliability of that evidence was questionable.  She gave the example of a ten day study that was done in Gainford, Alberta, which Trans Mountain relied upon heavily.  The study concluded diluted bitumen behaves like normal crude—floating on the surface where it can be recovered.  However, May points out the serious flaws in the study and references better, peer-reviewed research showing the contrary: diluted bitumen tends to sink, making recovery virtually impossible.  In another case, regarding spill cleanup costs, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US was referenced by a Trans Mountain supporter.  According to May, the website where the study was posted specifically said it was draft and should not be cited.  Further follow-up found that it had failed the first round of peer review and was subsequently removed from the website.  Yet Trans Mountain continued to rely on it and the word “DRAFT” had been removed when the study was submitted to the NEB, prompting May to question the integrity of Trans Mountain’s submission.

Attendance at the hearing was strictly controlled, according to May, which conflicts with the claim of consulting meaningfully with the public.  To prepare, she had to wade through 23,000 pages of information and suggested that, “Trans Mountain set out to make their application unnecessarily long with the intention of intimidating people…[It was] entirely aimed at discouraging public engagement.”  She reiterated that the realistic major spill scenarios put forward by the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby, groups like Living Oceans, and from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in their analyses were dismissed as low probability.  Yet at the same time Trans Mountain entertained the trivial possibility of avian flu being spread by pipeline workers stumbling into a poultry barn.  May concludes that the project poses unacceptable risks and provides little or no benefits to Canadians and so should be rejected.

Two world-class scientists testified: Dr. David Farmer, a retired Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Oceanographer, and Dr. Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist and now provincial Green Party leader.  Dr. Farmer, in his written argument to the NEB dated January 12, 2016, argued that Trans Mountain did not understand the subduction processes in the South Salish Sea, which would circulate the dilbit deeply, making recovery very problematic.  They also did not understand that dilbit will not float on the surface, but tends to sink, and so their analysis was based on false premises.  On the economic benefits, Farmer references a study by Dr. Gunton et al, which demonstrated that when analyzed in terms of net benefits, rather than gross benefits—as Trans Mountain had done– there will be a $7.4 billion deficit born by Canadian taxpayers.  There will also be an impact on the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population due to risk of spill and increased noise.  He recommended not approving the project.

“This is no place for a pipeline!” by Tar Sands Blockade is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Dr. Weaver argued that the risk analysis provided by Trans Mountain was essentially worthless.  The proprietary risk model that was used was inadequate for local conditions and he suggested several better ones but was ignored.  Their analysis was based on the faulty assumption that dilbit floats when in fact it will sink in water containing sediments, as we have along the BC coast.  Worse, there is no ability to effectively clean up oil that has sunk below the surface, and according to Weaver, Trans Mountain has no intention of studying the problem any further and so has little chance of being prepared.  Trans Mountain’s spill scenario was unrealistic as well: it assumed an oil tanker would only lose 15 per cent of its cargo capacity.  Weaver suggests this is a best-case scenario, and that Trans Mountain should have included larger scale spill scenarios in their risk analysis.  He concludes that their application is incomplete and should not be approved.

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation (TWN) traditional territory includes Burrard Inlet and the waters draining into it and so have a particular concern with the project.  In their written argument to the NEB, dated January 12, 2015, they noted the risks to the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population and that the project infringes on TWN Title and Stewardship Rights.  Since these rights are being contested in court, the project should not go ahead until there is a resolution.  Furthermore, the project “is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects and that there are no economic benefits.”  Another intervener, the Upper Nicola Band, in their written report of January 12, 2016, showed that Trans Mountain’s analysis was flawed, and given Trans Mountain’s assumptions, would result in a significant net economic loss to Canada.  In an earlier study, dated  November 8, 2014, Upper Nicola concluded that there will be serious risks and impacts on their traditional use of the land and associated cultural and spiritual values if the project went ahead.

There were many other individuals and organizations that testified before the NEB both for and against the project, but these should suffice to demonstrate that there were serious issues with the review process and the findings.  The true risks were not dealt with, front-line First Nations, like the Tsleil-Waututh and Upper Nicola, have not given their support, the science was not understood by Trans Mountain, the claimed economic benefits were false, and worst of all, there is no capability currently to clean up a major bitumen spill.  If–or when–there is a spill, it will be the environment, its creatures, and the peoples of British Columbia that will suffer and pay.  And from a climate change perspective, we should be moving resources quickly to renewables, and not be entrenching expanded bitumen traffic which will be difficult to shut down later.

But why has the Trudeau government allowed this flawed process tro continue, knowing fully well the NEB was manipulated by the Harper government for the very purpose, it seems, of making oil company projects easier to approve?  According to the Huffington Post, Trudeau had promised to reform the NEB if elected but failed to do so when it came to the Trans Mountain review.  The Liberals did, however, announce an independent environmental review in January, 2017, to be completed in time for them to make their final decision this winter, but how effective that process will be is unknown.  Maybe the Liberals find it politically convenient to have the NEB, with its flawed and inadequate review process, approve Trans Mountain first.

Perhaps Bill McKibben, considered by many to be America’s foremost ecologist, is right: Canadians need to stop swooning over Trudeau.  In The Guardian, April 17, 2017, he wrote that Trudeau is a “disaster for the planet” and a “stunning hypocrite when it comes to climate change.”  If he is right, then it’s a rude reminder that the oil companies and their supporters are very powerful and have considerable influence with our government.  They will not give up easily and neither should we.  We must, therefore, be more determined than ever to resist these attempts to ruin the environment–God’s good creation–for profits: a catastrophe both now and for future generations.

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