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Canadian Scientists Are Not Cool with the Northern Gateway Pipeline

Canadian scientists and the Harper government aren't getting along again.
June 4, 2014, 9:15am
Image: Earth Gauge Radio

While most of the Keystone XL Pipeline protests are happening south of the border on Capitol Hill, hundreds of Canadian scientists have petitioned against the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline connecting Alberta's oil fields to the coast of British Columbia.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the scientists argued that the Joint Review Panel report recommending the pipeline’s approval from last December is systemically flawed.

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“The Joint Review Panel’s (JRP) assessment of the Northern Gateway Project represents a flawed analysis of the risks and benefits to British Columbia’s environment and society,” the letter said. “We urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject this report.”

The scathing letter outright accused the review panel of contradicting “scientific evidence contained in official government documents” and treating “uncertain risks as unimportant risks.” While the scientists said the panel broadly considered “the economic benefits” of Northern Gateway, it also took a “symmetrically narrow view of the environmental risks and costs.” Chief among those overlooked risks is the potential for excess greenhouse gas release during oil production and the emissions when the oil is burned at its eventual Asian destinations.

“All negative effects associated with the enhanced production of oil sands bitumen, or the burning of such products in Asia, were excluded, as were greenhouse gas emissions generally," the document says. "This exclusion of the project's contributions to increased atmospheric emissions undermines Canada’s formal international commitments and federal policies on greenhouse emissions.”

The letter wasn't the work of amateurs. It includes the signatures of 300 scientists working at top Canadian research universities across Canada, from Newfoundland to BC, not to mention signatures from scientists at institutions like Oxford University and Harvard.

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When the roughly 500-page JRP report was first tabled, Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver declared it a “science-based assessment.” At the time it was championed for satisfying 209 required conditions, like developing a marine mammal protection plan and oil cleanup procedures.

The $7.9 billion pipeline is part of a planned effort to take bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to Pacific ports, so tankers can readily transport it to Asian markets. The proposed plan will cut through prime BC wilderness, and is, moreover, controversial among First Nations communities suspicious of Enbridge—an energy company active in Fort McMurray, a city that Neil Young compared to an apocalyptic wasteland.

The rush to satisfy Asian demand is the likely reason Harper is widely expected to approve the pipeline sometime this month, especially given Russia's recent signing of a $400 billion pipeline deal to supply China with some 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas. The deal reportedly puts pressure on Canadian plans to feed a thirsty Chinese market with liquefied natural gas. Harper’s strategy could be to jam through the pipeline’s approval and sign a similar deal with China, ignoring the petition from scientists and other protesters.

This isn’t the first time the prime minister has run into disagreements with top scientists either. Since winning a majority in the 2011 federal election his government has been accused of gagging scientific research. Dissent in the scientific community became so extreme it even roused a brigade of scientists clad in white lab coats to protest on the steps of parliament. Their primary criticism was the proliferation of research cuts to science and political muzzling from speaking out against government policy they disagreed with.

Ultimately, the protests went largely unrecorded and it would seem that the petition is in line for the same fate.