Thursday, February 7, 2013

Gateway Oil Spills: Hoping for Best, Not Preparing for Worst?

Western Sandpiper. Photo by Tom Middleton
Risk equals the probability of failure multiplied by the consequences of failure.

It's a fairly well-known equation that figured prominently during this week's Northern Gateway joint review panel hearings in Prince Rupert, where the panel tackled the issue of oil spills and recovery planning.

We've been joint interveners with BC Nature in the ongoing federal review of this project from the beginning.  And from the beginning we have argued that Enbridge has underestimated the project’s risks. First we focused on the endangered woodland caribou, and Enbridge's flawed methods that misjudge the threat of increased mortality from predators, and the impact that fragmentation of habitat will have on the caribou’s ability to feed and breed.

This week, we raised even more questions about how accurately Enbridge has assessed risk -- this time, the risk of a major oil spill wreaking destruction on B.C.'s coast, including the 29 Important Bird Areas that avian species and other marine wildlife call home.  

Over two days of cross-examination, lawyers from the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre, who have been representing Nature Canada and BC Nature pro bono throughout the hearings, used our previously submitted evidence to make a number of important points:
When it comes to response and recovery planning, Enbridge’s modeling scenarios were too few and too limited.

The company did produce two possible scenarios that track the trajectory of oil in the event of a spill in the open water area, and concluded that in general it would be bad for anything within the path of that oil. However, the scenarios do not address the consequences for specific taxa, and, in particular, fail to consider the impact of an oil spill on the numerous Important Bird Areas along the tanker routes that are intended to protect globally significant seabird colonies.

In fact, their models were too high level to be truly applicable to this specific place in the globe, accounting for the special conditions that exist along the BC coast as opposed to the Arctic, or the Caribbean.

Enbridge's claims about post-oil spill ecosystem recovery are highly suspect, especially for birds and marine mammals.

Enbridge has failed to consider the potential impact of oil spills on open ocean wanderers such as albatrosses and shearwaters. And they've virtually ignored significant potential impacts of the project on marine birds, like artificial light induced mortality, collisions, chronic oiling and others.

The models Enbridge created to assess risk for wildlife were only run for two seasons, summer and winter, and not the two seasons when many birds are at their most vulnerable and in greatest numbers: fall and spring.

Each spring, Black Brant arrive in great numbers at
MacIntyre Beach and Rose Spit, on the north tip of Haida Gwaii, for example, while Sanderlings descend there in the fall.

During our cross examination, Enbridge downplayed the consequences to wildlife (including birds, presumably) of an oil spill by arguing the "scientific literature is clear” that species inevitably recover following an oil spill.   In support, they cited a Northern Gateway report that aggregated the results of over eighty studies on the impact of oil on species in the marine environment.  Calling the numbers “robust’, the report’s author (hired by the company) asserted it strongly supported his conclusion that ecosystems and their components recover. 

The problem with this, as our lawyers forced him to concede, was that none of these studies involved marine mammals, and only one considered a bird species for which the data showed recovery within an identifiable time period.

Enbridge is hoping for the best, not preparing for the worst.

Why is Enbridge limiting itself to considering only the most probable navigational incidents, and not looking at the worst-case environmental scenarios? In other words, don't just focus on where a spill is most likely; focus on where it would be most harmful. To truly understand the total risk involved of a project that would bring giant tankers into these pristine waters at the rate of one every other day, we argued that the consequences are too high to do anything but prepare for the worst. We asked them in particular to undertake a worst case spill scenario that analyses the impact of a spill at the highly sensitive and globally important Scott Islands Important Bird Area.

You can read the full transcripts online (Feb. 4 starts at paragraph 386, and Feb. 5).

Thanks once again for the tremendous work of Chris Tollefson and his team at the Environmental Law Centre for helping us participate so fully in this hearing. As we read news of other interveners who find it too costly to continue participating, we're grateful for their volunteer efforts, and grateful to all of our supporters who have provided generous gifts to support this campaign.

There is still much to do, but your support means everything.



Worldocean Consulting Ltd said...

Nice job! I note with interest that three of the points mentioned in your blog entry: 1) risk being defined as the product of probability times consequence; 2) choosing a worst case scenario for a marine spill, and 3) specifically selecting the Scott Islands for such a worst case scenario, are also mentioned in my 2010 analysis of the marine oil spill aspects of the Northern Gateway application. That report is available on the JRP web site as expert testimony. It is good to see that someone has noticed. Kudos to UVIC's Environmental Law Centre for undertaking this noble pro bono effort on behalf of BC Nature and Nature Canada.