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COLUMN: Decision-based evidence making

Guest column by Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and leader of the Green Party of Canada

By Elizabeth May

I certainly do not blame Tom Fletcher for falling for the Government of Canada trumped up “findings” suggesting that cleaning up dilbit is no different from cleaning up crude. That was what the casual reader was supposed to conclude.

On April 30, the Government of Canada submission to the B.C. government was posted on Transport Canada’s website However, no one department is cited for this piece of propaganda.

I have gone through it carefully. It makes claims that even its own researchers, cited within the document, do not agree. It has made claims that are just factually wrong. Rather than provide political masters with evidence upon which they could base decisions, this submission distorts evidence to support a political decision. In the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau promised “evidence-based decision-making.” I thought that with the defeat of the Harper Conservatives, we had seen the end of “decision-based evidence making.” I was wrong.

For example, the submission claims: “Pipelines are the safest means of transporting all oil types, including conventional and non-conventional.” This is just flat out wrong. Rail safety all depends on the substance being shipped. Certainly, shipping Bakken shale by rail, the unconventional crude oil that devastated Lac Megantic, is reckless and dangerous. But shipping solid bitumen by rail is entirely safe.

Rail cars currently carry solid bitumen, heating the substance up enough to allow it to flow into the rail car, where it then solidifies. At the destination, the bitumen is reheated enough to be removed from the rail car. In between, the substance is solid. It cannot spill, and if an accident resulted in its casings breaking open, it could not spill nor catch fire. It is like a lump of tar.

On the other hand, moving a solid substance – bitumen – by pipeline requires diluting it with a substance called “diluent”. Diluent is a fossil fuel condensate, like naptha, with benzene and butane, shipped into Alberta to be mixed with bitumen to make “dilbit.”

The report claims Kinder Morgan has had experience with cleaning up dilbit. Under the heading “Previous Spills of Diluted Bitumen,” the federal government submission claims that in 2007 there “was a spill that resulted from a backhoe operator smashing into a pipeline carrying diluted bitumen to the marine terminal.” The problem is that that spill did not involve dilbit. I first heard the claim it was a dilbit spill from a representative of Western Canada Marine Response Corp, the oil spill clean-up company majority owned by Kinder Morgan. When I challenged him, he quickly recanted, but said the crude had been “like dilbit.” The thorough examination of the 2007 spill by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board concluded Kinder Morgan had been negligent. Throughout the entire TSB report, dilbit is not mentioned. The substance that was spilled is consistently described as “crude.”

Thank heavens we have never had a dilbit spill in our marine environment. We do know from the 2010 Enbridge pipeline failure in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that it proved impossible – to this day – to clean up the bitumen in the Kalamazoo River. The diluent separated from the bitumen and the bitumen sank to the river bottom.

I am deeply disturbed that a federal government report includes false claims. However, most of what was in the report was not false; it was merely misleading.

For example, Tom Fletcher referred to this: “Federal scientists have published or presented over sixty papers on diluted bitumen science in peer-reviewed fora since 2012.” The federal report wants us to jump to the inference that those reports prove that dilbit can be cleaned up. Except, the federal research is mixed. One of the authors cited in the federal response, Dr. Thomas King of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has conducted studies using ocean water with realistic wave action. In an interview with CBC, Dr. King explained, “When it begins to sink it becomes more troublesome … It is to a certain degree tougher to work with than conventional oil.”

The research that claims that dilbit floats was done by Natural Resources Canada in tanks of fresh water, with salt added, in Alberta. Without using sea water, the Alberta-in-tanks kind of spill lacks the sand and bits of seaweed and other particulates around which bitumen forms oil balls and sinks.

This dreadful misuse of federal government research fits with the direction to civil servants on Kinder Morgan uncovered by the National Observer through Access to Information requests: to find a “legally-sound” way to approve the pipeline. Decision-based evidence making must stop.

Elizabeth May is the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and the Leader of the Green Party of Canada