Lori and Goliath

By Briony Penn, May 2015

A scientific communicator takes on big oil and its so-called regulator.

When the Burrard oil spill started seeping onto English Bay beaches in April, the backstory of the oil industry’s corresponding rising share prices was already in the blogosphere. Kinder Morgan (Trans Mountain) owns half of Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), a company that has a monopoly on cleaning up spills on the coast. Lori Waters, a scientific communicator in rural Saanich, was connecting the dots for her blog followers in graphic detail. 

Waters is not your typical David taking on the goliath oil industry. With two Masters degrees, one in science (in biomedical communications) and the other in fine arts, rather than wielding more conventional weapons of mass research and lengthy reports, she has sharpened her pen (and mouse) to generate images of key concepts that get the kind of viral exposure useful in challenging giants.

Waters triggered a tsunami of protest in January of 2013 with her animated video submission on the last day of the Enbridge Joint Review Panel of the National Energy Board (NEB). She inserted the missing islands in Enbridge’s “tanker safety” advertising videos and recreated what the tankers would actually be navigating—a tortuous archipelago of 1000 square kilometres of islands rather than the placid “gaping maw” that Enbridge had portrayed as Douglas Channel. Her recreated videos went viral, reaching international newspapers. She also lodged a complaint with the Competitions Bureau and Advertising Standards Canada that Enbridge’s ads were false and misleading. In response to the bad press, Enbridge withdrew their videos. Waters is a new kind of scientist-artist-activist who understands the power of images that quickly and succinctly communicate key issues.

It was natural for Waters to turn her attention to the Kinder Morgan pipeline hearings given the potential impacts of tanker traffic on her own home stretch of the Salish Sea. These hearings have been declared a sham by high profile folk like ex-CEO of BC Hydro, Marc Eliesen. In November last year Eliesen withdrew from the hearings with a widely circulated letter claiming, “This so-called public hearing process has become a farce, and this Board a truly industry-captured regulator.” 

Eugene Kung, staff counsel with West Coast Environmental Law, recently wrote: “The myriad of criticisms (too numerous to list exhaustively) includes limiting public participation and expression (now seeking leave at the Supreme Court of Canada); excluding climate change from its scope…; inadequate testing of the evidence by cross examination or even answering the written questions asked; and participant funding disputes with directly affected landowners to name a few…We have serious concerns that the current NEB panel is neither independent from the oil industry proponents nor ready or able to assess the public interest of British Columbians.”

During the last round of hearings, economist and ex-CEO of ICBC Robyn Allan waded in with a detailed economic critique of who actually benefits from Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline (not Canadians—see Focus, January 2015). The National Energy Board incurred further criticism recently when it denied a motion by the Province of BC to have Kinder Morgan’s spill plans made public, even though similar plans were made available under Washington State legal requirements. 

One of the issues Allan brought to light that caught Water’s attention was the revelation that Trans Mountain Pipeline (Kinder Morgan) was in a conflict of interest about marine spill responses because they owned 50.9 percent of Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC). This is the same company that failed to quickly contain a relatively tiny bunker oil spill on a dead calm April evening in Vancouver’s English Bay. Trans Mountain also owns a quarter share of Western Canadian Spill Services Ltd (WCSSL), another company that cleans up their oil spills on land and water along with those of Enbridge and other oil industry companies. 

Among other things, Allan’s submission identified the lack of transparency around this close connection. Trans Mountain referred to WCMRC and WCSSL as “third parties” in their communications to NEB, which Allan pointed out was misleading and inaccurate. Mysteriously, Allan’s submission was removed from the NEB website. That was the trigger for Waters. 

Waters zeroed in on the ownership question and produced the headline with a twist and image to match. Instead of asking: “Who will profit from the pipeline?” she asked “Who will profit from an oil spill?” According to even Trans Mountain’s conservative estimates, there is a 10 percent chance of an oil spill in the Salish Sea. Recent events in Burrard Inlet confirm that these kind of statistical guesstimates are actually just a distraction from the real issues. 

Spills will happen—and there is money to be made from them. The public should be asking, “Who stands to get rich when they do?” 

In Vancouver, the estimated costs of the tiny bunker fuel spill are in excess of $1 million. A major spill clean up of bitumen in Burrard Inlet (500,000 barrels or 70 percent of an Aframax tanker) has been estimated to be as much as $40 billion dollars (more than the provincial budget) according to the 2012 calculations of Pulitzer-nominated journalist Rex Weyler. That figure, based on research done from other oil spills and the cost incurred based on the cost per barrel of oil that was spilled, includes clean-up costs, resident evacuations, tourism loss, losses to the BC fishing industry, health costs and port losses in annual wages and salaries. Someone has to pay for the clean-up, and under the current regulations, the bulk of that someone will be the people of British Columbia. 

Technically, under the four tiers of funding for the polluter-pay oil spill model, the company responsible for the spill is on the hook for the first $1.34 billion. Kinder Morgan’s own website notes that when the actual costs are higher, though, the public pays. If you look at Exxon Valdez, although $2 billion dollars was spent on clean-up, the spill was never properly completed and costs continue to mount, borne by a myriad of other jurisdictions and the people of Alaska. 

“The real story,” Waters points out, “is that it doesn’t matter how much the company is obliged or bonded to pay in a spill if the government has difficulty getting the company to pay. The US government is still in court and Exxon continues to appeal court-ordered punitive damages a quarter century later, despite it being one of the most profitable companies on the planet. If Canada were in a similar position, I wonder what chance Canadian taxpayers would have at extracting funds from a company whose corporate structure already appears to be designed to shovel money out of Canada? We have a 10 percent chance of a catastrophic oil spill that will change all our lives, and it could cost us multiple billions of dollars at the expense of our public services. Not only that, but we’d be directly paying the lion’s share of those funds to the polluting company responsible, for the project that we didn’t even want in the first place. Kinder Morgan has hedged its bets towards profit—with or without a spill.” 

Waters’ training included several years in Ghana working on a masters in fine art. There her activist leanings were heightened through witnessing the tragedy of AIDS and water inequity. She returned to Toronto to get her second masters in medical and scientific animation so she could communicate educational concepts to the people that needed to understand them most. 

Returning to the coast, her skills were employed by Elizabeth May as a researcher/communications specialist. And now Waters is lending her sizeable talents to Raincoast Conservation Foundation—one of BC’s most respected scientific research-based environmental groups—where she has been hired to communicate Raincoast’s extensive coastal research, which includes the large body of evidence compiled regarding pipeline proposals. Raincoast has been an intervenor in both pipeline enquiries. It has made it its job to research and speak out about the probabilities of risk and the consequences of the two massive pipeline/tanker schemes.

Waters sees her role as helping to “boil down” complex evidence, putting it into a more communicable form, one quickly understood by a broader range of people all over the digital universe—and locally too. Visual images of “Who benefits from the oil spill?” for instance, have been brought to audiences around BC through Raincoast’s public talks and its Directly Affected film. Waters is providing access to a younger and a wider audience that doesn’t read research scholarship by the likes of Robyn Allan (even if it hadn’t been deleted) and others that gets buried in the archives and libraries of our government’s institutions. 

Since her experience with the NEB, Waters has also been resurrecting and posting deleted reports like Allan’s, and challenging the institutions to properly safeguard the reports they are charged with safekeeping. 

Problems with the NEB go back further  than recent pipeline hearings. The first national enquiry into the NEB in 2000, called the Purvin & Gerz report, drew attention to the failure of the institution even then to address environmental concerns, assess cumulative impacts, provide transparency, and address public and aboriginal participation adequately.  Subsequent critiques and audits by the Auditor General have all referred back to the Purvin & Gerz report as a benchmark against which this national regulator has never improved its performance. In fact it appears to be getting worse. (Eugene Kung of West Coast Environmental Law has warned that it will continue to get worse, given recent announcements that the NEB is going to cut its operating budget by close to 25 percent over the next two years.)

In her research, Waters had seen references to the Purvin & Gerz report, but discovered it was no longer in the Library of Parliament where, by law, it should have been lodged. It had apparently “gone missing.” Waters could only retrieve half of the report from the NEB library. The missing pages were the meat of the critique and recommendations for reform. She finally was able to acquire a full copy of the report from David Core, the head of the Canadian Association of Pipeline and Energy Land Owners Association, who has been an outspoken critic of the regulator. In her letter to the NEB and Parliament libraries, she writes:

“I am concerned in general about this type of information going ‘missing,’…the current national administration appears to have a penchant and/or propensity for information destruction, such as the deletion of the majority of Canada’s public fisheries libraries…As an older report critical of the NEB at that time as a ‘captured’ regulator, this report allows determination of the scope and duration of these types of perceived issues at our ‘National’ quasi-judicial organization.”

Waters feels there must be a better way to safeguard the public interest in relation to energy projects. “If we had a real National Energy Board instead of the Calgary Pipeline Approval Board, it would be comprised of people all over the country and not focused in one small jurisdiction—a city like Calgary [the Act requires that the NEB is based in Calgary] and it would consider all aspects of national energy, not just fossil fuels and pipelines.” 

Waters wants to contribute to a national conversation around planning a sustainable energy future for Canada. “We are being sold a bill of goods by Harper that our national economy is dependent on the oil sands when it only supports two percent of our GDP… [A national energy plan] would consider alternatives that reflect a much wider part of our energy structure.” 

One of Water’s ideas is a graphic that demonstrates there are more jobs making craft beer in Canada than there are in the tar sands. “A national energy plan, though, is a taboo subject; people think we still can’t talk about it a generation later, but why? Why wouldn’t you have a national energy policy? If you had a national energy plan, wouldn’t you have a national energy board to help Canadians put it together?”

Briony Penn PhD is the author of the new book, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan.