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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for April 15th, 2010

Vancouver Airport Fuel Delivery Project

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I went to an open house last night, run by the provincial Environmental Assessment Office. The project has been around for a while (the Green Party tried to get people to pay attention to it at the last election). The idea actually goes back  much further and has already been rejected by Richmond twice, according to Harold Steves. The proponents are the consortium of airlines who make up the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation who have set up a website to promote the idea. The boards around the conference room, and the slides used by the presenter at the meeting, go into more detail than the brochure provided at the meeting. Probably the most informative document is the Project Description. On page 14 it describes the screening of fourteen different options from which this proposal emerged.

I think it is fair to say that this gave rise to many of the concerns expressed at the meeting. Most people wanted to point out that there are better ways of protecting the environment than trying to clean it up after there has been an oil spill. The general preference I think is that we don’t put the sensitive habitats at risk needlessly. So the assumptions and methodology used to select this project from the other alternatives are critical. But that will not be the subject of this EA. Both provincial and federal representatives present spent the first 40 minutes of the meeting explaining how their EAs work. And then the proponent got to do his dog and pony show – with questions limited and restricted – and the only answer ever given was “put your concerns in writing and we will answer after the EA is finished”.

I was surprised that the officials even decided to go for a public meeting format. An open house is usually preferred since opponents do not get a microphone, and cannot this let everyone else know what they are talking about. The meeting ran over time. The tactic of the officials and proponent to be be as dull as possible and bore people did not work. Most people stayed to get their word in. The project manager for the project spoke in a soporific monotone and avoided talking about any specific figures that might get quoted back at him.  Yet is was the claims that are made to justify the project where he was weakest. For instance, it was repeatedly said – and is also in the project description – that the current system is “at capacity”. As a number of people pointed out that is not true: the pipeline pumps are only used intermittently, as there is not enough tank storage at the airport (it already being expanded). But any questions about the existing system were deflected by trotting out a lawyer who said that as the current system is owned by Trans Mountain and not VAFFC, they do not have to answer questions about it.

The other obvious option – the use of the existing rail facility at Cherry Point refinery to load trains that could get to the existing rail sidings along River Road where a transfer to a much shorter pipe connection would need to be built – was dismissed out of hand. It is not even specifically addressed among the 14 options (only rail from Alberta was considered) but the project manager asserted it would be “too expensive”. There are, of course, no specific cost figures for any of the options, and when pinned on that point he waffled saying that the final cost of the preferred option could not be determined until its exact configuration was finalized (i.e. the route of the pipe within Richmond). VAFFC have already bought the property on the South Arm in expectation of proceeding.

The other assumptions – about constant growth of traffic at YVR and improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency not being enough to reduce the need for the project – were also not defended. They just came from “other sources” (YVR and Transport Canada) and thus could not be questioned.

Much was made of the fact that the project is not big enough to trigger a provincial EA but the proponent volunteered for one due to local concerns. Well, while technically true, a federal EA is triggered by the proposals use of navigable waterways and federal land (owned by the Port) so one was inevitable, so they might as well go for a combined EA. Fortunately for them, they do not put themselves in much hazard by so doing, since (despite the claims made by provincial officials) BC’s EA process is largely toothless. Some projects just give up, but very few are ever denied a certificate. It’s all about mitigation. The great strength of the opponents is that if fuel delivery were done some other way, mitigation might be much less. The problem is that the EA process does not have to test this assertion. It’s this project or nothing. No other option gets looked at.

Map showing terminal and proposed alternate routes

VAFFC Proposal

For the proponents, their major concern is that they have the ability to go to as many suppliers as possible. They do not want to be in thrall to any one supplier – or delivery system. To some extent, since they are the only customer for the existing pipe, they are using the proposal to put leverage on their suppliers. That concern is actually missing from the matrix used to select the final option but clearly weighs heaviest with the airlines. And it far outweighs all the other concerns.

If we had a truly rigorous EA process each option would be evaluated properly – not just screened out by the proponent before the process actually starts. It is this use of a coarse, and unverifiable “sieve” that gives rise to most of the concerns. Involving the public late, and declining to go into details about how this project is justified, is simply inflammatory. Unfortunately for the proponent – who has been diligently working with governments and first nations – the public has to be consulted. And they can detect very easily when they are being fobbed off.

My prediction is that as more people realize what their homes are going to be exposed to – and memories of that pipeline rupture in Burnaby are fresh in their minds – opposition is bound to grow. As those people realize that the options are not open to discussion, they will get angrier. Richmond is quite clear in its opposition to the project. The EA process will probably certify it, but I doubt that it can mollify those who feel that their interests have been protected. And, of course, for those concerned with the ecology of the Fraser delta, they have been disregarded for so many projects for so long, I am surprised that they still come out to such meetings.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 15, 2010 at 8:11 am