British Columbia's final submission to the joint review panel that weighed all the evidence on the Northern Gateway pipeline took the commonly held view that an oil spill would have "severe effects."
Even Northern Gateway acknowledged as much. The company went into exhaustive arguments about how unlikely a big spill would be. But it didn't dispute the widely held view that the effects of a big spill would be severe.
One expert consulting for the company explicitly confirmed as much. "It doesn't take a lot of wit to come to the conclusion that a major oil spill would have significant adverse effects on a river."
Another said "adverse and significant acute effects can occur â€¦ adverse and significant chronic effects can occur."
So the province of B.C. put forth the view: "That severe acute effects on fish and other wildlife populations could result from a spill into a river is indisputable."
Turns out that's wrong. It can be disputed. And it was, up to a point, by the joint review panel itself.
In the huge report that approved the pipeline subject to 209 conditions, the JRP reached the conclusion that large spills on land or at sea would cause significant adverse environmental effects, but that "the adverse effects would not be permanent or widespread."
The report makes a clear distinction between large spills and small spills.
As far as small spills of a few barrels are concerned, the JRP said spills from either the pipeline facilities, the shipping terminal at Kitimat or the tankers "are almost certain to occur during the life of the project."
It put the likelihood of a small spill over 50 years at 93 per cent, but said the balance of probabilities would indicate no lasting impact.
The startling thing is that it reached a similar conclusion on large spills. A large spill was defined as one involving 5,000 cubic metres of crude oil or more that would spread from the immediate area, require a full-scale response and not be able to be effectively cleaned up.
The JRP said it would not be likely and might not occur during the life of the project. But if it did, "natural recovery" would come into play. "A relatively large proportion of a large spill is likely to be naturally dispersed and degraded."
The panel acknowledged that a large spill would have "short-term negative effects on people's values, perceptions and sense of well-being." But appropriate mitigation and compensation following a spill would lessen those effects over time.
So the conclusion was that a large spill would cause significant adverse environmental effects, but those adverse effects would not be permanent or widespread. That's quite a departure from the common view that a major oil spill would be an irrevocable catastrophe. It also bypasses a widespread concern that no one actually knows how diluted bitumen behaves during a leak.
It might be a scientific conclusion that stands on its own.
But there's one clue in the documents that suggests if the JRP concluded the project was in the national public interest, it was obligated to conclude the adverse effects of a large spill would not be permanent or widespread.
Former National Energy Board chairman Roland Priddle, an expert on the process, was working as a consultant for Enbridge when he testified before the panel last year. He stated that if the panel found there were significant adverse environmental effects and related socio-economic impacts caused by the project, after proper allowance for mitigation of those effects, then the panel "should recommend against."
The B.C. government cited his observation in arguing against the approval.
If you accept that proposition, then the panel could not accept the idea that a large oil spill would represent a long-term blight on the environment and still recommend in favour the pipeline.
So the panel either discounted the potential for long-term damage in order to get to yes. Or it got to yes, then discounted the potential for environmental disaster, in order to backstop its finding.
Les Leyne covers the legislature for the Victoria Times Colonist. Email: