Concerned Engineers Warn of Flaws in Enbridge Northern Gateway Tanker Plan

Northern Gateway route to Kitimat

A group of engineers has released papers warning us not to trust the numbers provided by Enbridge when it comes to tanker traffic associated with the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

Concerned Professional Engineers (CPE) is a group of four engineers living in British Columbia with specializations in areas such as probabilistic methods in engineering, naval architecture, small and large materials handling, and cold climate design. Between them they claim more than 100 years experience in design related to industrial projects.

The group’s spokesperson Brian Gunn first became involved in conservation issues when he retired from his long career in civil engineering and bought a dude ranch in the wild interior of BC. Delving into the world of wilderness tourism, he became aware of the tense relationship between developers seeking to take advantage of the region's abundant natural resources and those residents who wished to preserve it.

I became conscious in that business to all the opposing forces of nature-based tourism and those forces that were the industrial forces that were also exploiting the land,” he says. “We all exploit the land in one way or another, but some leave a bigger footprint than others.”

It was quite an awakening after a long career of working with industry. “In my day, there was no real environmental opposition,” he says. “Nobody really questioned sticking a coal port on the eelgrass bed of Robert’s bank [in the southwest corner of the Greater Vancouver Regional District]. With these industries, we grew up feeling that we were doing a great job for society. Now the situation has changed.”

He and his colleagues decided to speak out in on Northern Gateway in 2012 when they first learned of the Enbridge plan to bring tankers as far inland as Kitimat. “As engineers involved with navigation and tankers and freighters, we thought, why would they want to go through 160 nautical miles, over 300 kilometres, and face all the risks in those channels when they could go somewhere else?”

But the group didn’t want to speak out before they were able to make an unbiased assessment of the situation. “Because we’re engineers, we felt we couldn’t just come out and comment right away. We had to do a proper job.”

Gunn says that professional engineers often feel pressure to speak for companies they are associated with. He believes that being retired frees him and his colleagues to examine the evidence objectively and speak candidly about their findings.

The papers point out three major issues with the findings of the Joint Review Panel: flawed risk analysis, who will shoulder the burden of spill cost, whether a spill can be cleaned up at all.

When we read the JRP reports in December, we were very disappointed and felt very strongly that they misled all of us who put our efforts in to consider the evidence.”

Do we trust their numbers?

Among the many oversights, Gunn says that the database used in analyzing risk contained errors and omitted two major incidents that would have significantly skewed the numbers: the MV Braer off the coast of Scotland and the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska.

He also questions Enbridge’s lack of transparency in their process, given the extraordinarily high cost for accessing the proprietary database they used to make their estimates. “It’s like somebody producing a major scientific paper and saying, these are the conclusions we’ve come to, but you can’t see the reasons why we came to these conclusions,” he says.

The CPE reports call the Joint Review Panel’s estimates around spill probability and the intricacies of cleanup “optimistic.” They also question the panel’s assessment of the behaviour of diluted bitumen in water. “Given the complicated currents and geometry of the Douglas Channel area, is it reasonable to assume that the spilled diluted bitumen can be recovered before it weathers and sinks?”

In the end, the group is careful to point out that they are not anti-business. They just believe the Northern Gateway proposal to be a poorly conceived project. “We still support development and the economy, but we’re trying to say, let’s do it in a way that’s responsible,” says Gunn. “The Northern Gateway tanker proposal is not a responsible development. It’s too risky and the evidence used to support it is not accurate.”