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The Day a Federal Panel Overruled B.C. — And Nobody Noticed

On the afternoon of Dec. 19th, as the National Energy Board’s recommendations on Enbridge’s oil tanker and pipeline proposal for B.C. were released, I tuned into CBC Newsworld and CTV News Network to see the coverage unfold live.

Over and over again, the opposition to the project was described as "First Nations and environmentalists.”

Wait a second. Just six months ago, the province of British Columbia submitted its final argument to the National Energy Board’s joint review panel, requesting the panel reject the project. “Trust us” isn’t good enough, the report read with regard to Enbridge’s promises about oil spill response.

“The province cannot support the approval of or a positive recommendation from the (panel) regarding this project as it was presented,” said the province.

The report was covered by all major media. And, as far as the panel was concerned, that was B.C.’s final word on the project. Why then, when the panel recommended approval of the project last week, did most reporters fail to reference the fact the decision directly overruled the will of the province?

It seems most of the media was successfully carried away with Premier Christy Clark’s politicking about her government’s “five conditions” and her agreement with Alberta on a “framework” to meet those conditions. There’s just one problem: that’s all irrelevant as far as the panel’s decision is concerned.

So, while many pundits outside B.C. point to the panel’s report as proof Enbridge’s oil tanker and pipeline project is safe and in the public interest, one important question remains unexplored: how is it that the province of B.C. and the federal panel came to such vastly different conclusions?

Let’s take oil spills, for example. In its report, the joint review panel acknowledges nobody really knows what happens when bitumen hits salt water. In its 209 conditions, the panel asks Enbridge to establish “a scientific advisory committee to study what happens to diluted bitumen when released into the environment.”

The report is sparse on the details of how oil could be recovered after a major spill and parrots Northern Gateway’s claims about "natural recovery" of oil in the environment.

"Northern Gateway said that microorganisms capable of degrading hydrocarbons are known to be present in the coastal waters of British Columbia, and their role in degrading oil in Prince William Sound following the Exxon Valdez oil spill is also well documented,” the report said.

However, look at what the province’s exhaustive 99-page final argument said on the very same matter and you discover a very different conclusion.

Citing an Enbridge witness, the province states: “With respect to…most open ocean spills, no oil from a spill is recovered; the oil remains in the environment.” They continue: “There are significant periods of time [68.5% of the time during Fall/Winter in the "Open Water Area"] during which spill response will be impossible or severely constrained.”

Where bitumen is concerned, the province’s position is based around the fact the heavy oilsands product to be transported by Northern Gateway poses special risks because it can sink into the water column or all the way to the riverbed or seabed.

The report says: “[Enbridge] acknowledges that it knows of no techniques to effectively remove dissolved oil from the water column,” and adds, “Enbridge] acknowledges that the fraction of the total oil volume that sinks can exceed 50%," and "recovery and mitigation options for sunken oils [e.g. weathered bitumen] are limited."

Ultimately, the province says Enbridge must prove its ability to effectively respond to oil spills before a project certificate is granted. “Trust us isn’t good enough,” they say.

Huh. So while last week the National Energy Board’s review panel (whose members are appointed by the federal government) ruled “trust us” is good enough, the country’s media developed a case of amnesia and forgot to ask the B.C. government how it felt about the panel coming to a drastically different conclusion than it did. 

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak was let off the hook easily by referring back to the province’s “five conditions.” And, just like that, the polar opposite conclusions of two reports on the same matter were swept under the rug.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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