Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘environmental assessment

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

Whatever happened to environmental assessment?

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I am sorry to be banging on once again about what I used to do once. But there was a time, not long after I arrived in Canada, when I first got involved  in environmental assessment. It was a departure for me, since up until that time I had done economic appraisals of projects using social cost benefit analysis. These did not, as some assert, ignore externalities but attempted to evaluate them using a similar metric to other variables. In the same way that we converted time to money – and put a value on life and noise – we attempted to produce as fair an appraisal of projects as we could – and it was much broader than the simple cash flow spread sheets used by P3 projects today. In Ontario in the early 1990s new legislation required an EA of every new major project to be funded by government. Cynics in the press called this the Consultants Relief Act – since it seemed that much more was spent on project appraisal than actually building things. In some respects this was no bad outcome. For instance, I helped the Township of Clarington fight a gargbage dump. I thought it was about the impact of trucks on neighborhoods – but I was given a very fast lesson in the effectiveness of  citizen involvement – and the effects of leachate on water quality  (neither something they taught me at LSE).

Ontario used to have a very thorough EA process – I managed a study of the a proposed  extension of the TTC subway yards, and in order to get an approval all our site criteria changed so that we could avoid the need for massive impact studies. We simply did not have the budget to do them. I was also around when BC adopted an EA process and was on the steering committee of one of the first projects that fell to it – the proposed new town at Bamberton.

In BC our EA process was gutted by Kevin Falcon, as part of his short reign as Minister of Deregulation. The political direction was simple – anything that gets in the way of the private sector making money must go. And that is pretty much what happened. While major projects are still subject to an EA process, the outcome is never in doubt. It will happen – and the only thing that gets discussed at all is how “mitigation” is going to get the project through. Even if the sites offered in mitigation are already in use as mitigation for other projects (which was the case on Highway #1) or are completely inadequate (SFPR). Incredibly the SFPR evaluation also recorded the impacts on human health from diesel exhaust as an economic benefit because it would create more jobs for health care workers!

I did not know until today that Ontario’s EA process has been similarly undermined. I was sent a link to Railroaded by Metrolinx by its author. I read with increasing dismay how the EA process has been distorted there – and for similar reasons. The outcome of the assessment is predetermined by government. In this case an expansion to Toronto’s commuter rail system – which will be by continuing to use diesel trains. It would appear that the option of electrification was not given serious thought. The author is clear about her point of view – she is one of the people called NIMBYs who is personally going to be impacted. But she is right in thinking that politicians who want to seen to be effective quickly forget that they are supposed to have a broader view of their responsibilities than having a ribbon to cut.

It reminded me forcefully of how the Canada Line suddenly appeared to be Translink’s greatest priority. Prior to that Translink staff (not me actually) had been looking at the Evergreen Line – and had actually completed an objective assessment of its routing and technology choice. That was pushed aside by one man. Ken Dobell, former City Manager for Vancouver and subsequently Deputy Minister to the Premier, wanted a subway under Cambie to the airport. And that was decided before any studies were done – and all studies subsequently were designed to support that conclusion – even if the data had to be bent to fit. For example it was stated that the slope up Cambie past City Hall was “too steep” for light rail – even though some simple use of the City’s own GIS maps showed the average grade was within spec (less than 6%) and I had pictures of ancient Lisbon trams climbing 10% grades. And of course the Arbutus Corridor was rejected out of hand – not enough “attractions” on it – as though Queen Elizabeth Park and Langara Golf Course would bring in lots of commuters.

Distance changes the view, of course, and from the perspective of Toronto our electric train to the airport looks a lot better than their diesel trains. Which, of course, is the whole point about the assessment process. Almost any study can be predetermined if you chose the terms of reference carefully enough. So, for example, with P3 power projects, no one is allowed to question need – or to ask if conservation might provide a lot more usable power more cheaply. With the Port Mann Bridge there was no option other than the project examined at all. Only a “do nothing” scenario – and later some “paper tiger” transit options designed to fail. When I started using CBA, in Britain, we used it to compare a whole long list of projects – and then only the top few actually got funded and built. It was a way of prioritizing within a programme. Even then I got a lot of stick from my engineer colleagues when I started doing comparisons of traffic management schemes to road building: traffic management rates of return on capital employed were always far ahead of road building.

What is happening now, nearly everywhere, is that all sorts of projects are being rushed to become “shovel ready” so they can get stimulus funds. As usual crisis management is a handy excuse to push through all sorts of half baked pet projects. Economists are in most places now pariahs, due to their complicity in the financial chaos – though that may be unfair on many in the profession. There is not much time or consideration given to analysis when “something must be done”.

One of the reasons people make bad decisions – or rather make decisions which turn out to have unforeseen consequences – is that reason often has very little to do with the process. This is as true of major government and business choices as it is about household choices about major purchases. Emotion always plays a much bigger part than people are willing to acknowledge  – but is the reason why there is such a huge growth in the persuasion industry. And the same skill set is used by marketers, advertisers, communications specialists and lobbyists. None of them deal objectively with facts and figures – it is all spin and sound bites, determined by polls and focus groups. No one in the establishment wants to see this change. They think they can control the process – and on the evidence of the last BC election they seem to be winning. But that is going to be short term, hollow victory – and we will all be paying the cost, as our planet rapidly becomes uninhabitable. Simply because we did not care enough to do the job of evaluating our options properly.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 30, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Environment

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