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Environmentalists harness science to combat pipeline proposal

Two local environmental groups worried about public apathy over the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline proposal have turned to a…

By Jericho Knopp , in Environment , on November 18, 2013 Tags: , , ,

Yellow Card on Water
This drift-card will head for a beach in the Vancouver harbour, carrying an ominous message: “This could be oil.” Photo: Jill Fitz Hirschbold

Two local environmental groups worried about public apathy over the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline proposal have turned to a new strategy that combines scientific research with bold activism.

It’s a strategy that researchers at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Georgia Strait Alliance hope will add to the existing knowledge of currents in the Strait of Georgia and prompt more public debate about the pipeline.

However, some experts on science and public engagement say the project may not be as effective as the groups hope.

Sixteen hundred plywood squares, painted with the message “This could be oil,” were dropped between Oct. 24 and 28 at various sites in Burrard Inlet and the Strait of Georgia as far south as the water near Saanich. The drop points mimic the route an oil-carrying ship is likely to take out of Vancouver on its way to Asia.

Each bright yellow square has a unique code, so that people can pick them up and register the location where they washed ashore. The reported discoveries are placed on an interactive online map.

Andy Rosenberger, a researcher with Raincoast, says that the group believes the strategy is “a really good combination of science and educational engagement.”

In the first two weeks, there were over 300 cards reported. Rosenberger expects 300 more to come in, a 38-per-cent return rate. The researchers hope to publish the results early in the spring.

[toggle title=”The pipeline debate in numbers”]

Oil in Vancouver:

Amount of oil currently flowing through the pipeline: 300,000 barrels per day

Amount of oil that would flow through with the new pipeline: 890,000 barrels per day

Amount of petroleum that passed through the Vancouver port in September 2013: 5,950,440 tons

The study:

Total number of cards dropped: 1,600

Number of drop sites for the project: 8

Number of cards dropped at each site: 200

Number of cards returned so far: 300[/toggle]

‘Old method of doing oceanography’

One person who agrees with Rosenberger that the research is valuable is Kate Le Souef.  Under the guidance of Dr. Susan Allen at the University of B.C., she is working on a computer model of currents in the Salish Sea.

Drift-card boart on water
Researchers and students threw drift-cards out into the sea during one of the drops. Photo: Jill Fitz Hirschbold

Le Souef says that the drift-card study is great science. “Drifters have been used in oceanography since people have started studying the oceans.”

She understands that the research isn’t perfect. One limitation is that “you know where the card came from and where it ended, but not where it went in between.”

Drift-cards behave a little differently than oil. “A plank of wood might flip up, be acted upon by the wind. That wouldn’t happen so much with oil.”

However, she is looking forward to seeing the project results. “We’re actually going to use some of their data to see how well our computer model is doing.”

But Al Lewis, an emeritus professor in UBC’s Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, is slightly more critical of the project.

“I question whether 1,600 is enough to do a good job. They have spread it all over, with eight drops rather than having one or two closely linked drops.”

‘Not transformative’

There are also mixed reviews on how efficient the spill map is as an advocacy tool. The project “is a creative, innovative and interesting means of raising awareness,” according to Shane Gunster, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University.

Jericho Beach
Jericho Beach is one of the areas likely to be affected by a potential oil spill.

“Finding one of these cards would certainly be an interesting experience for many people and likely something that they’d discuss with their friends and family.  And those are the conversations which are often the most important in terms of generating awareness.”

However, Rima Wilkes, an associate sociology professor at UBC, is dubious. “I would suspect the people who already care are going to use this, but I’m not sure if it’s going to generate new action.”

One thing everyone agrees on, however, is that the only way forward is for activism and science to be blended in these kinds of projects. And that’s not as unusual these days, as scientists become more vocal about the impact of their work.

“Anyone who says their science has nothing to do with values is lying either to themselves or others. None of us would be studying what we study if we didn’t care about it,” says Wilkes.

Al Lewis also maintains that the important point is that someone is doing something. “I keep coming back to the fact that they accomplished something and that’s what they were hoping for.”