Justin Trudeau science Trans Mountain pipeline

Ottawa’s call for new science review says a lot about Trans Mountain safety claims

In the absence of sound science on the risks of the pipeline, government has a duty to delay construction, and err on the side of coastal protection and climate progress
By Wendy Palen, Associate Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Earth to Ocean Research Group, Simon Fraser University Dr. Thomas D. Sisk, Olajos-Goslow Chair of Environmental Science and Policy, Northern Arizona University; Visiting Professor, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University; Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Green College, University of British Columbia Dr. Stephanie J. Green, Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University Dr. Kyle Demes, Research Associate, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia.

For 18 months, the federal government has claimed that its support for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is science-based.

Despite pledges to increase transparency and elevate science in policy decisions — which earned kudos during the 2015 election — it’s hard to find the scientific basis for their science-based decision.

Some in the Trudeau government seem to be getting the message.

Less than three weeks ago, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna called for the creation of a new scientific advisory panel to reconsider concerns about the environmental risks of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. Many scientists — including ourselves — are eager to contribute.

An advisory panel of independent experts could address the deficiencies of a National Energy Board process that is widely acknowledged to have been both industry-biased and insufficient.

However, this begs an important question: if concerns are sufficient to convene a new science panel to address the NEB’s failures regarding the risks of diluted bitumen in B.C.’s coastal waters, shouldn’t the decision to approve the pipeline have waited for just this kind of information?

Prior to the November 2016 pipeline approval, we shared with government a peer-reviewed study that evaluated scientific understanding of 15 types of environmental impact to the oceans caused by the production and transport of diluted bitumen.

This heavy petroleum product would be pumped through the Trans Mountain pipeline at three times the current volume and create a seven-fold increase in tanker transport through Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet.

Our research found large gaps in scientific understanding of the toxicity of diluted bitumen products to marine species and how the products will behave in the ocean. Filling both gaps is necessary before determining whether the Trans Mountain pipeline is in Canada’s best interests.

In fact, our study was one of at least five major scientific reviews, published by the Royal Society of Canada and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Office of Response, among others, in the lead up to the approval of the Trans Mountain project.

All five identified major gaps in scientific understanding and preparedness for environmental impacts generated by the coastal transport of diluted bitumen.

The gaps in knowledge, combined with incomplete risk assessment and insufficient baseline data, make it impossible to address the full suite of threats to ocean species and their habitats, or to assess the effectiveness of emergency actions, including spill response.

Given the paucity of information on these key issues, the B.C. government’s call for additional scientific review and research, made last January, was well grounded, and has proven to be prescient.

McKenna’s proposal for a new look at the science followed on the heels of reports that a high-ranking government official had instructed public servants to find a “legally-sound basis to say ‘yes'” to the Trans Mountain project, while discouraging them from raising concerns identified by independent research, including our own.

A credible review, by a panel of independent scientists, at arm’s length from influence by industry or government, is long overdue.

In the absence of sound science, government has a duty to delay construction, and err on the side of coastal protection and climate progress.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s public commitment to transparency and evidence-based policy demands no less.

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