As my readers know, I care deeply about the quality of science used in environmental decision-making so the latest anti-pipeline activist meme crossing my desk caught my attention. The meme suggests that the Trudeau government ignored the peer-reviewed science in approving the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion (TMX). This meme was given life in a Vancouver Sun article: Science is a casualty of the Trans Mountain pipeline debate by Dr. Thomas D. Sisk a visiting scholar at Simon Fraser University (SFU). It has subsequently been picked up in a follow-up article: Trans Mountain’s only certainty — death and carbon taxes by Jason MacLean an outspoken professor at the University of Saskatchewan, College of Law. The newspaper articles refer back to a peer-reviewed paper: Oil sands and the marine environment: current knowledge and future challenges published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Frontiers hereafter). As described by Dr. Sisk in the Vancouver Sun, the Trudeau government
received it [the Frontiers paper], discussed it internally, then dismissed key, peer-reviewed scientific findings without contacting us or providing any rationale for concluding that the Trans Mountain project was “safe for B.C.”
When the Frontiers paper came out, I read it and like the Trudeau government I dismissed it as an example of general interest science that had little to add to the TMX debate. Since the Trudeau government is not sharing their discussion publicly, I will explain why I dismissed the work so my readers can decide whether they agree that the Trudeau government was right to ignore the recommendations in this paper.
The Frontiers paper is in the form of a literature review. It looks at the state of existing academic literature at the time of preparation and attempts to establish what we know and don’t know about a topic. This type of literature review is very common and can be incredible useful, but alternatively, in cases like the Frontiers paper, it can be very misleading. How so? Well a literature review is deeply dependent on the sources from which it derives its information. In this case they:
conducted a systematic review (via keyword search) to quantify the number of peer-reviewed scientific studies indexed within the international database Web of Science and non-refereed literature indexed within the Canadian government library database WAVES, which catalogues all content within Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) libraries and DFO reports.
To provide a more detailed study the report concentrated on two particular types of habitats (eelgrass and kelp forest ecosystems).
Now this type of review can be very useful if the paper were dealing with an abstract topic of generic science but it is of little use when dealing with a specific project like this one because each project has to be viewed in its own context. Why do I say this? Well, because the export of bitumen via the TMX is not a generic project, it is a specific project involving exports from a single port (The Port of Vancouver). Moreover, the export was strictly limited to a set of berths at a particular location (Westridge Marine Terminal). These critical facts were not incorporated into the review and as a consequence much of the content of the review becomes utterly irrelevant.
To explain, consider the “Coastal Development” portion of the paper. The review presents a number of general concerns about the construction of infrastructure for the export of bitumen, but does so while completely ignoring the fact that the exact plans for that infrastructure were already in place as part of the NEB process. The plans for the expansion of the Westridge Marine Terminal had been fully vetted and habitat offset plans created (the final plan is here). So when the authors insist that further research on “shading” associated with the construction of a hypothetical terminal is a “high” priority they ignore that all that research had already been accomplished for this particular project. Sure generic research could be proposed if a new marine export terminal was going to be built somewhere else in BC, but for the TMX this type of generic research isn’t needed. It had already been completed. Is there any wonder the Trudeau government dismissed this “high” priority, but entirely generic, research concern?
In a similar vein consider the “Shipping” section of the paper. The Shipping section indicates that:
Increasing transport of oil sands products via ocean tankers is certain to amplify at least three sources of stress to marine ecosystems: wake generation, sediment re-suspension, and acoustic pollution. It will also increase the likelihood of two probabilistic effects: animal–ship collisions, and the introduction of exotic species between ports
Once again, these would be significant considerations if they were building a new port somewhere far away from existing infrastructure but that is not what is happening in this case. The TMX will be expanding operations at an existing port. As I have written previously, the TMX tankers would represent an increase of 720 more ship movements in a Strait that sees 23,000 ship movements a year. This at a port that is engaged in a build-out that will expand ship traffic significantly. Thus, the authors’ insistence that research on “wake generation” caused by the project is a high priority issue is really a non-issue. In the Port of Vancouver wake generation is a highly studied issue and this fact is completely missed in this academic review. As for the other topics in the “Shipping” section (sediment re-suspension, noise pollution, Animal-ship collisions, non-indigenous species introductions) these are all topics that have been heavily studied in the Port of Vancouver and for which no further study would be warranted based on the minimal increase in traffic associated with TMX. Any reasonably aware observer reading this paper would understand that none of these generic arguments would be a justification to delay the approval of this specific project. It is for that reason that the Trudeau government dismissed these “peer-reviewed scientific findings”.
The most entertaining section in this article is the one on “Bitumen in the Environment”. As many readers know the behaviour and effect of hydrocarbons on ecosystems is my specialty and I have written thousands of words in this blog on the topic. I can tell from reading this paper that it is not the specialty of any of the authors. While I could write 2000+ words on this topic I don’t have to because I already did in a previous post. Essentially the authors imagine that bitumen is a mixture so unique that none of our previous research on the topic of hydrocarbon spills applies. That is, of course, not the case. We know more than enough about the fate and effect of a dilbit spill to know that we want to prevent it happening. We really don’t need to know whether dilbit is fatal to salmonid fry at 75 ppm rather than 100 ppm because should a spill occur the numbers will be in the hundreds of thousands of ppm. As I wrote previously:
The reality of the situation is that any oil spill, be it crude oil or diluted bitumen, represents a tragedy and catastrophe. It will harm the natural environment, will kill some marine organisms, and will be very hard to clean up. The point of this blog post is that a diluted bitumen spill would not be a uniquely catastrophic situation. It would be comparable to a spill of any other heavy crude…you know the products that have been safely shipped in and through the Salish Sea for the last 50+ years. Banning the transport of dilbit until we have done more research has no basis in science. It is a political game. Any “independent scientific advisory panel” will end up concluding that we have the information to design a world-class spill regime. Anyone who says otherwise is either not aware of the state of research in the field of spill response or has a political axe to grind.
So once again we are left to wonder why the authors of the Frontiers paper think we should delay the work while we do much more research on bitumen exposure from operational spillage. Do the authors believe that the conclusions of any new study will make us more willing to allow spills into the environment? Because right now the aim is not to have any spillage and to clean up any potential spillage as soon as possible. Knowing a bit more about bitumen toxicity to marine organisms will not change that approach.
Re-reading this post I still cannot understand how the activists can believe that the Trudeau government, on receiving the Frontiers paper would pay it any significant heed. The paper, while peer-reviewed and published in a reputable journal, is entirely generic and completely ignores the significant research conducted as part of the NEB submission. As such it does not advance the information base on the topic of the TMX. Due to its format, it didn’t consider any particular conditions unique to the TMX project. Rather the paper appears to have posited a new facility far away from existing influences and then asked what information would be needed before building such a facility. This does not provide added insight since the TMX is not building a new facility far away from human influences. The TMX project involves extending an existing facility located at the core of one of the busiest ports in western North America. A port that has been heavily studied for its environmental impacts for over 30 years.
To conclude, Dr. Sisk’s complaint was that the Trudeau Cabinet received his peer-reviewed journal article, discussed it internally, then dismissed “key, peer-reviewed scientific findings without contacting us or providing any rationale for concluding that the Trans Mountain project was “safe for B.C.””. Well had I been in Prime Minister Trudeau’s shoes I would have done the same thing. This paper raises a number of generic concerns that have little or nothing to do with the TMX project. Most of the areas they argue need more study are either irrelevant (the entire Coastal Development section) or insignificant when placed in the context of the day-to-day activities at the Port of Vancouver (the entire Shipping section). To my eye, the reason the Trudeau government ignored his group’s concerns is that the NEB submission addressed every one of them sufficiently to allow for an effective evidence-based decision-making process. I am quite certain that had Dr. Sisk read the entire NEB submission he would have discovered that the government had answers to virtually every issue his group raised in their paper. Their generic concerns were addressed by the detailed assessments that had already been carried out by the NEB.