Imagine your favourite lake — the one on which you have a cottage or fish for walleye. Now imagine it is going to be acidified for 40 years by a giant industrial project. Or imagine your favourite park has been designated as a transport route for trucks carrying toxic chemicals. You would probably feel irate, and your outrage might spill over into protests at this assault on your local environment.
We may find the above unthinkable, but this is precisely what First Nations communities in northern Alberta experience daily in the face of exponential growth of oilsands mining.
Take the Jack Pine oilsands mine expansion, for example. This project will acidify more than 20 lakes, divert rivers, reduce local air quality, and have serious impacts on migratory birds, woodland caribou and wood bison. A review panel evaluating the project concluded "The long-term and possibly irreversible nature of these effects has significant implications for the sustainability of traditional ecological knowledge, TLU (traditional land use) practices, aboriginal and treaty rights, and culture."
Nevertheless, they recommended the project proceed "in the public interest."
Now, with the federal government’s decision to conditionally approve Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, First Nations along the proposed route and coastal communities are being asked to put up with more of the same, and then some.
The National Energy Board’s joint review panel for Northern Gateway admits pipeline construction will impact already endangered woodland caribou and grizzly bears. The twin pipelines — one carrying bitumen liquefied with diluent (dilbit) to Kitimat, B.C., and the other carrying imported diluent to Alberta — will cross more than a thousand waterways, including major salmon streams such as the Stuart, Endako, and Skeena. Located in some of the most difficult terrain on in North America, each of these waterways is at substantial risk from any future spill.
Then there’s the Douglas Channel and Hecate Strait, with their numerous islands and reefs. These waters will be plied by tankers carrying anything from 600,000 to three million barrels of dilbit, with all the attendant risks of catastrophic spills, underwater noise pollution, and direct collisions with whales, whose populations have been recovering in recent years.
The review panel is both vague and excessively optimistic in its assessment of these risks. Regarding the "unlikely" event of a major spill, they contend the majority of marine life would recover in weeks, months or a few years. In fact, based on unspecified "scientific evidence," the panel "accepts the results of chronic risk assessments that predicted no significant risks to marine life due to oil deposition in subtidal sediments." The panel reached these inexplicable conclusions in spite of the known tendency of dilbit to sink when bound to suspended sediments, the known difficulties of cleaning up dilbit spills, such as the 900,000-gallon spill in the Kalamazoo River, and the numerous unknown unknowns surrounding dilbit’s behaviour.
Regarding the chances of a tanker coming to grief, a report prepared by Concerned Professional Engineers concluded the risk assessment used by the review panel was deeply flawed and underestimated the inherent risks. Among other things, the risk assessors omitted significant tanker wrecks from their historical analysis, falsely assumed tankers would spend only 10 per cent of their time in wreck-prone waters and provided no justification for their predictions of spill frequency.
So much for the acknowledged risks from transporting dilbit. Other important risks and impacts were simply omitted from the review panel’s subjective evaluation. Northern Gateway is slated to carry over half a million barrels of dilbit across the mountains each day. All that bitumen will be produced from expanded oilsands extraction.
Returning to the Jack Pine mine expansion, the acidified lakes, diverted rivers and violated treaty rights are not "risks"; they are acknowledged and certain consequences of these projects going ahead.
The construction of Northern Gateway would increase the pace of oilsands development, inevitably resulting in environmental degradation further into the fragile northern environment.
Finally, the review panel ignores the planetary risks posed by Northern Gateway bitumen’s greenhouse gas emissions. Over the next few years, 78 per cent of the growth in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions will come from oilsands production, negating our modest recent reductions on that front. The International Energy Agency — hardly a bunch of tie-dye wearing tree huggers — concludes about two-thirds of known fossil-fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if the world is to restrict global warming to two degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures.
The review panel imposed 209 conditions on Northern Gateway, including substantial measures to protect stream crossings and sensitive environments during construction. But the recommendation that it proceed was based on incomplete or unscientific risk assessments, biased towards best case scenarios. As a result, Ottawa’s (inevitable) approval of Northern Gateway violated its own requirement the decision be based on the "best science" available.
Andrew Park is an associate professor at University of Winnipeg and the environment critic for the Green Party of Canada.