Scientists say dilbit floats, enough science to craft adequate spill response…why isn’t message getting through to BC?

BC Premier John Horgan and his eco-activist and coastal First Nation supporters will be annoyed with a new Angus Reid poll that shows support for the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline growing across the country, including his own province. But the survey also shows that the BC NDP leader understands his voters’ deepest concerns about the project: the likelihood of a spill off the West Coast and the adequacy of the response.

Trans Mountain Expansion“From a British Columbia perspective, this is less about twinning a pipeline than it is about tanker traffic – and a need for a visible and effective emergency response protocol people can see, believe, and have confidence in,” Angus Reid said in its press release.

Of the BC respondents who took part in the poll, almost three-quarters (74%) say the prospect of a spill of a spill in the waters near Metro Vancouver is their greatest concern. Over half (56%) say they are worried about the effect of increased tanker traffic (which will grow by one per day to 30 to 35 monthly, according to Kinder Morgan) affecting the “natural beauty” of Burrard Inlet.

When asked which issue most concerned them, a tanker spill was overwhelmingly the choice (52%), as the chart to the right demonstrates.

An aspect of oil spills and responses that doesn’t appear to have found its way into Angus Reid’s survey is the behaviour of diluted bitumen (dilbit) in a marine environment.

Trans Mountain ExpansionThe “demon dilbit” figures prominently in the public debate over oil tankers and the BC coast.

Opponents says it sinks and can’t be cleaned up. They claim that coastal spill response is poor, couldn’t possibly respond in a timely fashion, and even if it did couldn’t clean up more than a small percentage of the crude oil from the water.

One of the reasons the Horgan government trots out to justify restricting dilbit shipment within BC is that the science is spotty on the topic.

Are these claims true?

Dilbit and spill response will be the subject of an Energi News long-form investigative report within the next month or two. Four scientists, three of them actively involved in dilbit research, have been interviewed and the oil spill response plan from the West Coast Marine Response Corporation will be sent out to experts for comment in the near future.

Two observations from the interviews.

At the end I asked the scientists if there is enough science available to design a proper spill response strategy. They all replied in the affirmative.

I also asked if dilbit behaved differently in water than other oils. It does not, with a few minor exceptions.

Trans Mountain ExpansionThe impression thus far is that dilbit does not present any special challenges to spill responders.

If this is the case, why have Kinder Morgan and industry not done a better job informing BC residents – especially those in Metro Vancouver, where concern is highest – of the facts?

Why has the Canadian government not done a better job informing those same residents of the $1.5 billion Ocean Protection Plan, which is intended to significantly bolster spill response capacity?

Why doesn’t the WCMRC do a better job publicizing its spill response plan?

In light of the wretched job project proponents have done communicating with and engaging BC residents, the level of support is astonishing.

Stiff legal and political opposition from Horgan and company has actually increased the number of Canadians who say his government’s strategy is wrong (from 55% to 64%).

Trans Mountain ExpansionAnd national support for Trans Mountain Expansion has risen six percentage points (to 55%) since Angus Reid’s Feb. survey.

The same holds true in British Columbia. Angus Reid says that ” as the debate has heated up, support has risen to 54 per cent while opposition has dropped to 38 per cent.”

This is true even in Metro Vancouver (50%) and Vancouver Island (54%), long considered the hotbeds of opposition to the pipeline.

The polling company also asked respondents about how Horgan, Notley, and Trudeau have handled the controversy.

Notley earned the highest markets, which is a bit surprising given her bellicose stance toward BC (a brief ban of BC wines from Alberta, introduction Monday of Bill 12 that will give her government the right to restrict or stop shipment of petroleum products to BC).

Canadians think she is doing a good job to the tune of 42 per cent (29% give her poor marks), while within Alberta, Angus Reid says that a “majority (54%) say she has done a good job, while 39 per cent say she has done a bad one. This is considerably more division than Albertans express on other questions in this survey – such as support for the pipeline itself.”

Trans Mountain ExpansionEnergi News has opined that Notley’s strategy is dangerous because it risks alienating BC pipeline supporters ahead of the huge protests expected in the lower mainland. But the data suggests her plan may be working.

Prime Minister Trudeau, on the other hand, has not been so lucky. Critics (including Energi News) have argued he let the constitutional questions fester and he and his natural resources minister, Jim Carr, have not paid enough attention to politics on the ground, failing to build a coalition of supporters to offset the opponents.

The criticism appears to have stuck. Almost half (46%) of Canadians think he has done a poor job and only 36 per cent think he has done a good one. According to Angus Reid, “the Prime Minister gets negative reviews from both British Columbians (60% of who say he has done a poor job on this file) and Albertans (71%).”

What conclusions can we draw from this poll?

One, that the Alberta premier’s hard-line approach is working, which suggests we’ll see more of the same as this dispute drags on into the spring. Will we see Alberta entirely cut off petroleum supplies to British Columbia?

Two, Trans Mountain Expansion supporters must, finally, engage with British Columbians over dilbit spills and the response capacity, providing more information than they have to date.

Three, the Prime Minister may want to become more actively involved on this file. The Pipeline Summit on Sunday was a good start. More, please.

Polling methodology: The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from April 16 – 17, 2018, among a representative randomized sample of 2,125 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum. The
sample plan included large oversamples in some regions, weighted back to provide a national snapshot. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size with this sample plan would carry a margin of error of +/- 3.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding. The survey was self-commissioned.