Part one of two on the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal
Today: the problem with risk.
Both opponents and supporters of Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal talk about the risks of a major spill as if they know what they're talking about.
Both sides are wrong.
It starts with the math.
An Enbridge spokesperson said last year that a major spill could only happen once every 15,000 years. Even if that figure as accurate, it doesn't mean that it will take 15,000 years for a spill to happen. It means a spill could happen any time in the next 15,000 years, including next year or the year after that.
Enbridge has thrown around 30 years as the working life of the pipeline. Using their numbers, that means there is a one in 500 (0.2 per cent) chance of a major spill.
Whatever the number attached to the risk of a pipeline rupture, the more important question is what level of risk is acceptable. Simply stating, either for or against, that the odds of a major spill are one in 500 isn't enough. Is that good or bad? Is 1 in 1,000 acceptable? How about 1 in 15,000?
It's unreasonable for pipeline opponents to demand no risk to the environment from the pipeline.
People buy cars and get on airplanes knowing there is a small but real risk of not surviving the journey. There is no such thing as risk-free behavior. The only questions are how much risk there is in an activity and is the likelihood of a catastrophic outcome remote enough to make the risk worth taking.
But it's not just the math that's the problem. When it comes to assessing risk, our brains are hardwired dumb.
As psychologists have pointed out, humans are poor at imagining themselves in the future. The further in the future we look, the less able our brains can comprehend things like risk, both positively and negatively. In other words, it's natural but not logical for pipeline supporters to downplay the risk of a significant spill and for pipeline opponents to exaggerate the risk.
Enbridge is in the pipeline business and has had great success, literally and financially, moving energy products from one destination to another, so the company and its staff are naturally confident in their abilities to do so.
That confidence clouds their view of the risk of a pipeline spill. Furthermore, it helps explain Enbridge's tepid response to the Michigan pipeline rupture in July 2010, leading to three million litres of crude oil spilling into the Kalamazoo River watershed. Since a major spill is so outside of the norm for a working pipeline, Enbridge staff disregarded reports of defects in the pipeline in advance of the spill and then took 17 hours to respond. Part of that time was probably checking the alarm system to see if it was working properly.
Anyone can criticize Enbridge staff for their slow response to the 2010 spill but when the fire alarm goes off in your workplace, do you immediately jump to your feet and evacuate the building or do you and your colleagues first look at each other and wonder why the alarm is going off?
Similar misconceptions are at work among many of the opponents of the Northern Gateway Pipeline.
Pointing at the Kalamazoo spill and saying "see, this is what will happen in Northern B.C." makes no sense. Using that same logic, no one should ever fly aboard a commercial airliner because of what happened on 9/11.
When events like pipeline spills and terrorist attacks happen, the risk-benefit analysis gets skewed the opposite way.
In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains how no one sees rare events, like black swans, coming but after they see the black swan (or the pipeline spill or terrorist attack), people expect to see them all the time and put a much higher probability of seeing another black swan than is actually the case.
The probability remains the same -- before and after the black swan event -- but what changes is the view of the probability of a similar incident happening again.
Even if Enbridge's risk assessment is too optimistic and the actual chances of a major spill from the pipeline are five times higher - 1 in 100 or one per cent - are the benefits still worth it?
Tomorrow: The case (with conditions) for the pipeline
-- Managing editor, Neil Godbout