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, it 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.
And then, that’s clarified as well. Thank you.
I realize that you’re very focused on BC, but I suppose the activists play these dirty games all around the world. I got to your blog through Garth Braun and my immediate interest lies with the company he directs.
Thanks again and please keep educating me.
A few days ago I made a post on my Twitter to the effect that we desperately needed some fact checkers to cut through the frenzied rhetoric and political mudslinging surrounding TMX, as well as evidence-based arguments and sound science. As a biology student myself with an undergrad degree and a soon-to-be master’s degree I highly value those things. Looking at my social media feed from the last ten days though, I’m embarrassed to say you wouldn’t know it. I could talk about how this is the first big “public interest” issue that has captured my attention and compelled me to become active in the conversation, how I’m naive and inexperienced, but those are excuses. In my rush of passion for “justice” I’ve allowed myself to be dazzled by “expert opinions” and op-eds and that sound good and make sense to my heart but I’ve left my brain at the login screen. So I guess, just wanted to thank you for being the fact checker I was looking for, and while as it stands for the moment I’d still rather TMX not be built, I much appreciate having a more balanced view.
Why would you not have it built? If you are satisfied that most of the media surrounding project is rhetoric and hysteria, why would you not go along with the project simply recognizing that the risks are minimal and the substantial…?
Well that’s why I said “for the moment.” I only just found this blog last night and I’m still readjusting my outlook on the whole thing. All due respect to Mr. King and what he’s doing here, I appreciate the perspective, but I’m not ready to simply “go along with it” based on having skimmed a few posts from one person at midnight while procrastinating doing other things… I agree there is a lot of hysteria and finding this blog served as a jolt to disengage from the more volatile soapboxing but I’m not yet convinced the rewards outweigh the risks. I do believe there are still areas of legitimate concern, for example about First Nations people and how they seem to be systematically ignored/barred from the table (disregarding whatever outside groups may be piggybacking on them to push their narrative). And I want to go read some of the primary literature for myself. As I broaden my perspective I’m open to being convinced; I’m not saying I’ll oppose TMX to my dying breath regardless, I’m just saying I haven’t done the necessary reading and reflecting and decluttering to take a stand at the moment
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Sarah…have you read the NEB report…it’s pretty much all in there….what you should stay away from is anything in the Tides funded Tyee, or Observer chain…it’s pretty much all BS
Thanks for the warning Rod. I’m reading the review article Mr. King refers to for a deeper understanding but the NEB material is next.
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But First Nations groups have not been ignored at all. KM has done a better job of consultation and negotiation than any government has been able to accomplish. All of the bands whose lands the pipeline crosses have signed agreements with KM that provide for compensation, participation in the form of jobs, etc. The nations that have not signed agreements and who are conducting the ballyhoo in the press are ones who are not directly on the line and either refused to negotiate, preferring instead to grandstand (I mean, let’s be honest here, Stewart Phillip never saw a soapbox upon which he would not climb for publicity’s sake). The bands who support the project need to speak up. Phillip claims to speak for the entire BC First Nations, but he clearly doesn’t.
In the past weeks, although I have Blair’s (anxiously awaited) posts at the ready, and I’ve done research to confirm what he says (even though it’s not necessary), I’ve found it’s virtually impossible to argue or even have a polite discussion with those on the other side. I get accused of being an oil shill, a troll (even though it’s posts on a pro-pipeline FB page), rude names I won’t repeat. Even though I politely posit facts, they get shrieked down. I’ve been called a princess, a shill, a wanker, an ignorant c***t, just to name a few, and those are the nice names. This is on comment sections in the NP, Vancouver Sun, the Province, various oil sands FB pages. It’s startling how ignorant, vehement, and irrational people have become. Sometimes I wish the internet was still a figment of Cern’s imagination.
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I swear people have lost their minds. Blair, you’ll probably find it funny, if it weren’t so sad, the kind of responses I get when I post responses that I admit freely are based upon your blog posts. Here’s an example: Devin Fenwick Alison Malis (that’s me) you’re like a broken record…and no amount of science based evidence would save your poor oil shill soul. The troll farm you work for must pay handsomely, or hubby makes good money in the oil patch so you can stay home and eat chocolate cake for breakfast while trolling comment sections. You are relentless, even though your arguments have been proven false
I have posted this on a few other comments sections but think it is worth repeating.
I am an avid environmentalist. I do my best to limit my ecological footprint. I grow as much of my own food as I can, drive as small and as little as practical, reuse, and recycle whenever possible. I try to encourage others to make their own effort.
But do I have to be against progress? Do I have to be anti-oil, anti-people, or anti-meat?
Is there some reason I have to engage in a war on anything, or anybody simply because they are wealthy, drive a gasoline powered automobile, or work in an industry I do not approve of? Do I have to work towards destroying jobs, impeding commerce, or destroying the profits of corporations? Why must I hurt my fellow man in the name of some rather vague ideology?
How often does Greenpeace, the Tides Foundation, or the Sierra Club ever protest against starvation in Africa, abuse of women children or elders, human trafficking, or slavery?
Why is every extremist activist (and most of them are extremists) doing their best to hurt as many people as possible in as many ways as is possible?
Why do these activist groups and their members think it is justifiable to use lies, misinformation, violence, obstruction, and destruction to illustrate a point that may be questionable to begin with?
I am sorry. I am an environmentalist but I will not be joining your ranks or contributing to your coffers and will look in disdain on all of those that do.
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Rockyredneck, too bad more people aren’t like you, nowadays it seems fashionable to try force a “green” lifestyle on the masses (but not our elites).
peanutflower….you are so right on that one…Mr. King has experienced it first hand and wrote aobut in his blog…..”The Trans Mountain Expansion Project Open House or Blair’s Adventure in Wonderland”
On Feb 13, 2018: The judge dismissed all charges in the lawsuit brought against Dr Tim Ball by BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver. It is a great victory for free speech.
‘The Deliberate Corruption of Climate Science’.
Tim’s website is
“Human Caused Global Warming”, ‘The Biggest Deception in History’.