‘Scientific fraud’: B.C. geologist pans data behind Flora Bank LNG approval
When Patrick McLaren first pitched a sediment analysis of the port of Prince Rupert, B.C., seabed, he had no idea he would uncover a “mind-blowingly wonderful” 8,000-year-old anomaly underpinning a long-established area of critical salmon habitat.
The B.C.-based geologist and founder of SedTrend Analysis Ltd., who began his career with the Geological Survey of Canada, pioneered a technique of sediment analysis in 1985 that helps engineers understand flow dynamics — the way currents, and structures built within them, affect riverbeds, beaches and sea floors.
So with a massive, $36-billion liquefied natural gas project proposed to end at Lelu Island in Chatham Sound, McLaren offered to study the entire port area to establish some baseline understanding of the port’s dramatic currents. It’s an area of seven-metre tides, the mouth of the 610-kilometre Skeena River — one of the longest undammed rivers in the world — and heavy seas, where Chatham Sound opens out into the notoriously wild Hecate Strait.
McLaren’s research, funded first by the Lax Kw’Alaams First Nation and later by the Gitanyow First Nation, was the beginning of a battle that would see him butting heads with federal bureaucrats, a Malaysian state-owned oil and gas giant and the “dynamic modelling” industry, considered the gold standard for predicting highly complex processes and interactions.
The federal Liberal government conditionally approved the Petronas-led LNG project last month, based in part on an environmental assessment that determined a terminal and suspension bridge across one side of Flora Bank off Lelu Island would not harm fish stocks. Dynamic modelling was integral to the company’s case.
Late last month, First Nations and environmental groups filed several legal challenges against the project, including one based on a claim that the environmental assessment was flawed.
McLaren’s work will be extensively referenced in the court challenge.
He currently has a contract to advise the Gitanyow band, who hired McLaren to do follow-up current measurements on the Flora Bank after his initial findings were challenged. The Skeena Wild Conservation Trust, which has asked the Federal Court for a judicial review of the project’s environment assessment approval, is subsidizing McLaren’s contract with the Gitanyow.
McLaren alleges that Petronas contractors altered, manipulated and ignored data — under the gaze of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Fisheries and Oceans, and Environment Canada — in an effort to prove their project wouldn’t harm the Flora Bank, a natural formation their model still can’t account for.
The five-square-kilometre area of sand and eelgrass at the mouth of the Skeena River has been recognized for decades as critical habitat for millions of smolting Skeena salmon, B.C.’s second largest sockeye salmon run.
“I feel I could easily go to court in terms of what constitutes scientific fraud,” McLaren said in an interview.
“The concepts through all their work have the characteristics of scientific fraud.”
Neither Pacific Northwest LNG, whose majority owner is Petronas, nor the various government departments and agencies, responded directly to a series of technical modelling questions based on McLaren’s allegations.
“Pacific NorthWest LNG’s project underwent a rigorous, comprehensive and science-based environmental assessment, during which Pacific NorthWest LNG responded to requests from the regulator,” Tessa Gill, PNG’s head of external affairs, said in an email.
“Pacific NorthWest LNG also met and worked with local communities and area First Nations throughout the three-year long environmental assessment process.”
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency said it “conducted a thorough science-based review, taking into account the views of scientific experts, including the views of Dr. McLaren, the public and indigenous groups, and basing their conclusions on a diligent review of the facts and evidence.”
Spokeswoman Karen Fish added that departmental officials at Natural Resources Canada and Fisheries and Oceans “carefully and diligently examined the potential effects of the project on salmon populations and fish habitat including water and sediment movement at Flora Bank, with the goal of preventing or mitigating adverse effects.”
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna used similar language in reaction to the court challenge: “This project underwent a three-year rigorous and thorough science-based process that evaluated and incorporated mitigation measures that will minimize the environmental impacts.”
It’s that “science-based” evidence claim that profoundly irks McLaren.
To follow his argument, you have to go deep into the weeds — eelgrass, in this case.
McLaren took 2,600 sediment samples from all around the Prince Rupert port in 2014 but the Flora Bank left him baffled.
Like the Petronas modellers, he’d assumed sediment was flowing on to the bank from the Skeena River and washing off with the currents, creating a natural equilibrium.
Instead he found Flora Bank contains unique and uniform sand grains, unlike anywhere else in the port. He was also unable to find any pathways of sediment moving on and off the bank, despite the many powerful currents at play.
McLaren eventually established that Flora Bank is an ancient deposit of glacial sand at least 8,000 years old — a staggering find considering its exposed, storm-washed location. Historic marine charts reveal that the sand bank’s shape is unchanged over the past century.
The bank’s dynamics are “absolutely mind-blowingly wonderful,” he said. “It’s such an amazing environment it should be a national park of Canada.”
“That changes everything as to how you look at the effects of the (LNG) development.”
Instead of examining the bank to determine what forces are bringing in and removing sediment, and then weighing that against how development would change those forces, McLaren was now trying to understand what forces have kept the unique sand bank in place for millennia.
He concluded the LNG development, with 500 large pilings sunk along a quarter of the bank’s perimeter, would cut tidal and wave currents. That, in turn, would disturb the “wall of energy” equilibrium and cause the sediment to “escape” into deeper waters, McLaren posits.
If that happens, “nothing will bring it back again.”
After 30 years working around the world on sediment transport, McLaren acknowledges no prediction is foolproof. “But it is a prediction that is defensible based on how Flora Bank must be working.”
Petronas-hired modellers initially dismissed his findings. But after McLaren published them in the international Journal of Coastal Research last May, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency asked the project proponent to do more modelling.
Eventually, the company produced a model they said agreed with his sediment analysis — while sticking to the original “no harm” conclusion.
McLaren says the company ignored its own current measurements taken on site and claimed currents are much lower than those McLaren actually measured. He also says the company changed the verifiable physics of how much current is required to move sand grains of the precise size found on Flora Bank and ignored observable sand waves there — which require currents well above even the company’s artificially high threshold for sand movement.
McLaren says the company modellers also changed the “bed roughness coefficient” in the model, which determines how much friction a current will exert on the sand, in order to allow for higher currents to arrive at the same conclusion: the sand won’t move.
As McLaren puts it, the modellers kept “moving the goalposts” to come up with their predetermined answer, and that’s not science.
The federal Liberal government should acknowledge the environmental dangers of the LNG facility, said McLaren, even if they choose to approve the project anyway on economic grounds.
“By proclaiming that this is science — ‘It’s OK!’ — then I think the Canadian people should be told.”