08/21/2012 05:28 EDT | Updated 10/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Stephen Harper vs. Science


Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declared that science, not politics, will decide the fate of the Northern Gateway project .

Harper's statement left many in Canada scratching their heads, given his government's well known antipathy to any scientific finding that conflicts with its ideological blinders.

A Canadian Press story that received nationwide attention this weekend, told of how budget cuts and tight timelines make a proper response to Enbridge's plans virtually impossible for staff at the stressed-out Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Stephen Harper alone makes almost all important decisions, so if science is really going to decide Northern Gateway, Harper needs a lesson in Jurassic geology, specifically Canada's Jurassic islands.

It's very simple: the same geologic forces that created the Alberta oil-patch, the bitumen sands and the shale gas deposits fracked in Alberta and northeastern BC, will, in the end, if science is even a factor, decide the fate of the Northern Gateway project.

Petroleum geoscientists just love the Western Sedimentary Basin that produced all that lovely oil -- all that dirty bitumen and all that possibly money-making natural gas trapped in what was once sea bottom mud. Those petroleum products were created by creatures living, dying and sinking in the shallow seas that stretched as far south as what is now the Gulf of Mexico during the Cretaceous. Those seas and the coastal environment were also home to the tyrannosaurs, horned dinosaurs, "duck billed" herbivores -- the fossils now found from northern Alberta to south Texas.

By contrast, Mesozoic geology of northwestern B.C. has been low or no priority. No oil. Only a few fossils of sea creatures such as ammonoids and shellfish. If the public, the media and the politicians are to understand why the geology of northwestern British Columbia is so unstable, and why that makes the Northern Gateway pipeline potentially so dangerous to the environment, they have to know what was happening out west "when dinosaurs roamed the Earth."

For a long time, the west coast of North America was a quiet place. That is until about 200 million years ago, with birth of the Atlantic Ocean and the tectonic forces that pushed the North American plate against the Pacific plate.

For a large part of the Mesozoic era, those colliding tectonic forces produced chains of volcanic and uplifted islands off the west coast, similar to the islands today like Japan or the Philippines.

Imagine you're in what is now British Columbia in the middle Jurassic, say around 150 million years ago. Roughly where Hazelton and Smithers now exist (right on the route of a proposed pipeline in the far far future) are the beaches of the sea coast. Off shore there are a series of islands, some of them belching volcanoes, creating the dinosaur era environment just as it was first imagined by the writers and painters of the early 20th century. Time and time again, the movement of plates pushed the islands on to the continent, creating mountains like today's Andes in South America. Uplift and volcanoes created new islands. As the plates moved, the new islands smashed against and merged with the continent. Those Andean-style mountains were lifted and twisted and pushed.

(Unfortunately, those geologic forces have also likely destroyed any fossils of what animal and plant life on those islands millions of years ago. If you can imagine, however, scientists now believe that the Jurassic Archaeopteryx, a possible step on the evolution of birds, was black like the ravens of British Columbia that featured in many of the legends of the First Nations. What else could have lived on those islands? Perhaps imagine a mutated white "spirit" version of the famed Jurassic hunter, the Ornitholestes ? )

That mountain building and shaping continued for millions of years of volcanoes and earthquakes that carved the coast range, the Bulkley Range and all those interior mountains and valleys that reach to the Rockies.

Eventually came the ice ages. The glaciers sliced through the weaker parts of those mountain rocks, creating new valleys and often leaving huge deposits of sand and gravel and debris that add to the geologic instability of the region. A giant glacier helped gouge the Douglas Channel starting north of Terrace, passing Kitimat down to today's coast. Some of the islands that Enbridge forgot to mention in its promotional video, like Hawksbury Island, just south of Kitimat, are made up of glacial deposits, rising 200 metres above sea level.

What people in the Kitimat region call "Onion Flats," also known as the Dubose Industrial site, where media mogul David Black hopes to build an oil refinery was, some 10,000 years ago, the edge of the retreating glacier, not unlike some of the glaciers in Alaska you see today (until they melt). That flat land, perhaps suitable for development, was then a giant melt water delta, depositing all the sand and gravel, where the refinery might or might not be built one day.

For all those who in Alberta that keep saying that the people of British Columbia have to be "educated" about pipelines, and just so Stephen Harper is up to date on his science: Those pipelines in Alberta, Saskatchewan and down all the way to Texas are built on land which was once that flat, shallow inland sea. Building a pipeline over smashed, broken, uplifted, twisted Jurassic-era islands, downsized by erosion, lost islands turned into mountains, buried and shaped by kilometres of glacial ice is a completely different story altogether.

(Main source: Geology of the Northwest Mainland, by Allen Gottesfeld, Kitimat Centennial Museum Association, 1985. Interpretation is mine alone. Disclosure; I am on the board of directors of the museum)