Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has science on his side.
He and his cabinet ministers repeated this statement several times this week as they promoted a controversial decision to approve two new oil pipelines — Enbridge's Line 3 replacement and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion — that could accommodate about one million barrels of oil per day from Canada's production.
The problem is that some scientists say the evidence flies in the face of what Trudeau called a safe project, the west-coast Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. In fact, they say there is very little published evidence in the scientific literature about bitumen to back up the prime minister’s claims.
And one of the most glaring gaps of evidence, the scientists say, is the absence of any significant research on the effects of spills of bitumen — the heavy oil from Alberta’s oilsands industry that is expected to flow in the new pipelines — into the oceans.
Scientists shared findings with Trudeau's office
A group of scientists from Canadian and American universities reached these conclusions after a comprehensive review of thousands of scientific papers on oil and the environment. They found literature on impacts of oil spills, but very little published research about how bitumen affects marine organisms, as well as how spill response would affect these organisms. Their findings were peer-reviewed and are scheduled to be published later this month in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
In an interview with National Observer, three of the scientists said they gave advance copies of their findings to Trudeau’s office and others in his cabinet on Nov. 21, but it’s not clear what the government did with that evidence.
“It’s hard to imagine that the federal government decision (to approve new pipelines) could be based on science, just when we’ve found that in many cases, there’s very little science to base those decisions upon,” said Wendy Palen, an associate professor of biological sciences at Simon Fraser University in B.C., and one of the authors of the paper.
Palen, co-founder of the Earth to Ocean Research Group at the university, collaborated on the new study with lead author Stephanie Green, a Banting post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University in California, and Tom Sisk, director of the landscape conservation initiative at Northern Arizona University. There were five other co-authors.
Green said that the group received confirmation that the government had received the information.
“We just don't know how or if they considered it,” said Green, who is Canadian.
Evidence doesn't exist yet, say scientists
When asked on Tuesday whether the Trudeau government had reviewed all of the evidence from scientists, prior to making its decision, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said:
“There are scientific opinions that don't agree, one to the other. We’re satisfied that the scientific evidence that was available to the government in advance of this decision was good evidence and sufficient to make a good judgment.”
Palen said one of the key points of the study, given to Carr and other ministers, was that they didn’t have all the evidence.
For example, scientists don’t even know the chemical composition of the different varieties of the toxic liquid diluent when it is added to bitumen to help it flow through a pipeline because it is considered a trade secret of industry. This would make it hard for any expert to figure out how to clean up a spill in the ocean. It would also make it difficult to objectively evaluate a company's spill response plan, the scientists said.
“Some of these things are glaring holes in our understanding… especially in these unknown bitumen products,” Palen said. “What we would argue is that to assess risks, you have to have information about that risk and then make a good decision as a result of that information. If there’s no science underpinning that (decision) it draws into question whether the decision is responsible.”
Green said that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had reached similar conclusions about gaps in research about the risks of bitumen in their own assessments of the science.
'Many unexamined risks'
Sisk said that this was one of many unexamined risks to the oceans from supertankers that are carrying bitumen from the oilsands. But he added that the government could help reassure scientists by being transparent about how they reached their decision.
“Either Minister Carr or the government will release a compendium of their scientific analysis in very near future, or they’re acting on very secretive information… that scientists won't be able to evaluate,” Sisk said. “I hope it’s the former.”
Another scientist told National Observer in a separate interview that she was also interested in seeing more evidence about potential impacts from increased tanker traffic on killer whales. Canada's National Energy Board has concluded the whales will likely face significant adverse impacts from the project and the regulator is requiring that Kinder Morgan mitigate this risk.
Caroline Fox, a post-doctoral conservation scientist at Dalhousie University and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said that additional evidence was needed to determine the adequacy of the company's plans to mitigate risk to the whales.
"We’d like to see that information and science in full," said Fox. "It’s pretty difficult to comment on mitigation strategies that you can't fully examine."
Green and Palen also said that the government has placed itself in an unusual situation since it has criticized the existing environmental review process for industrial projects, but accepted how it evaluated the projects approved this week. The government has launched comprehensive reviews of Canada’s environmental laws that have just gotten underway.
“It feels a little bit disingenuous,” Palen said.
with files from the Canadian Press
Editor's note: This story was updated with a new headline and additional background details at 9:45 pm on Wednesday