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Canada's environment minister insists the Trudeau government's approval of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion project is supported by "robust science."
Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna defended the work of federal scientists on Thursday in approving the project by Texas-based energy company Kinder Morgan, saying “I talk to scientists every day."
Her comments follow concerns flagged in peer-reviewed and governmental research, by First Nations and by British Columbia about the environmental risks of spills of diluted bitumen, the tar-like heavy oil produced by Alberta oilsands companies, that will be sent along Trans Mountain.
“We believe the science is there,” said McKenna, in an interview on the sidelines of the Women Kicking It on Climate summit that she hosted at Willson House in Gatineau Park, Que.
“You always want to be doing more science — we have great scientists in our department. But we made the decision to go ahead with the project, including the conditions, based on good science."
The summit brought together women climate leaders, such as European Climate Foundation CEO Laurence Tubiana and Moroccan minister delegate in charge of the environment Hakima el Haité, to come up with solutions to advance the Paris climate agreement.
In 2015, a Royal Society of Canada report concluded that Canada lacked the science to know what effect a spill would have on ecosystems. Environment Department chemist Bruce Hollebone told CBC Radio last month that the report showed "we know a lot less about the potential receiving environments where the spill might happen."
In January 2016, McKenna's department recommended more research and access to information on public health and safety and the "knowledge gaps and uncertainties with respect to hydrocarbon product behaviours" in water, in its submission to a National Energy Board (NEB) panel reviewing the project.
Then in November that year, a peer-reviewed assessment by eight academics of more than 9,000 pieces of scientific literature on oilsands products, marine ecosystems and other topics, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, was sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
That assessment, which was sent to the prime minister a week before he gave the green light to the Trans Mountain expansion project, concluded that “there are large unexamined risks to the marine environment from oil sands products” and that it would be “scientifically unfounded” to assume damage from these products can be lessened.
Since then, National Observer has reported that some government officials labelled the assessment wrong and picked apart its conclusions; that high-ranking public servants in the federal government discussed speeding up the review of the project; that federal government sources allege that the process was rigged following Kinder Morgan lobbying; and that the former B.C. government had identified 11 "marine safety gaps" in case of an emergency surrounding the pipeline.
Asked what she is hearing from her departmental scientists on the issue, McKenna responded that the project went through a “full environmental assessment” that examined potential impacts and resulted in the NEB's 157 conditions that the company would have to meet to proceed. These conditions involve impacts on air quality to fish habitat and soil, emergency preparedness, safety and regulatory oversight.
“We made our investments in the Oceans Protection Plan, and this was working with the previous B.C. government, who had expressed some concerns," she said, citing additional tugboats and reopening coastguard stations.
Yesterday, Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced a new set of measures for that plan, including seven new partnerships with Indigenous coastal communities, and $110 million over five years to chart 23 high-priority ports across Canada's coasts to create safer navigation, among other items.
McKenna could not elaborate on any specific conversations she had with scientists on the issue when asked, but she noted environmental assessments go beyond her own department to include the fisheries and natural resources departments. She also said the federal government has been “doing science on oceans health, marine spills — for decades — as well as on diluted bitumen.”
“Specific interactions — I talk to scientists every day. But their role is making sure that we’re making decisions based on robust science, and that’s what we did,” said McKenna.
Last month, the minister proposed a new scientific advisory panel with B.C. to address concerns about Trans Mountain expansion’s environmental risks. She made the proposal in a letter to B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman.
“I took the extraordinary step of writing a letter to Minister Heyman,” said McKenna, “because I felt during the consultations they were not being clear about the science that exists, and the science that has been already done.”
She said she had not heard yet from Heyman on the next steps for that panel.
“As we said, we’re happy to do more science. We made the decision based on science. Going forward, on broader ocean health and marine science, we’re happy to continue working with the government of British Columbia,” said McKenna.