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5 rules for a science-based decision on the Enbridge Pipelines

August 12, 2012

Prime Minister Harper was in Vancouver on August 7 and took the opportunity to tell Canadians that any decision on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines and tankers project would be made through an “independent process” and on the basis of science, not politics.

The Prime Minister is not technically correct in implying that the decision will be made through an independent process or that the government will not be “picking and choosing particular projects”.  Until recently decisions about federally-regulated pipelines like Enbridge Northern Gateway were made by the National Energy Board, which is arms-length from the politicians, but all of that changed with Bill C-38, which turns the final decision on such projects over to the Cabinet.  Indeed, just one business day before the Prime Minister’s announcement, the government amended the agreement on how the Enbridge Joint Review Panel would be conducted to make it clear that:

The Governor in Council [federal Cabinet] will make the decision on the environmental assessment (whether the project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects and if so, whether such effects are justified in the circumstances). The Governor in Council will also decide, by order, whether the Board should issue a certificate and will give reasons for the order.

So while the process of reviewing the project – still the job of the National Energy Board – may be independent, the decision is not. The federal government will be deciding whether or not each particular project goes ahead.  Our first rule for science-based decision-making might be not to turn the decision over to politicians.

That being said, many other environmental statutes (including both the former Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, repealed by Bill C-38, and its replacement), turn final decisions over to politicians in this way, and the Prime Minister Harper presumably means us to understand that his government will respect the findings of the NEB process.  For example, Mr. Harper’s government turned down the controversial Prosperity Mine on the basis of a critical Environmental Assessment from that proposed project’s review panel.  There is nothing illogical about giving our elected representatives a decision-making role in issues of national importance so long as their decision can be justified with sound reasoning and that decision-making takes place out in the open. In light of the government’s deliberate weakening of scientific decision-making, including the gutting of the Fisheries Act, it seems that Mr. Harper needs to do a bit more than just promising that this decision will be based on science. 

If Prime Minister Harper is serious about a science-based decision on pipelines – even if Cabinet makes the ultimate decision – here are 5 rules that we do think need to be in place:

1.    Understand the strengths and limits of science

Science is great at measuring and quantifying things.  It can tell you the likelihood of an oil spill or how the oil is likely to spread.  It can tell you about such a spill’s possible impacts on fish, birds and other animals.  It can even suggest some ways to minimize those risks.

But it cannot tell you whether it’s worth taking those risks.  As UBC Professor George Hoberg tweeted in response to Prime Minister Harper’s promise of a science-based decision: “Science can help inform risks, but can't tell you anything about the acceptability of risks. That is a socio-political choice; values…”

Sitting in Ottawa, it may seem to the Prime Minister that the risks of a tanker spill are acceptable.  Evidently (even before receiving the NEB’s report) the risks seemed low enough to the federal government that it was acceptable to cut the Coast Guard and Environment Canada staff on the West Coast who would respond to such a spill.

But that doesn’t mean that those risks are acceptable to British Columbians, or to the First Nations who have declared the pipeline and tankers illegal under their own laws. 

2.    Set clear and transparent targets and goals

Science helps measure progress towards specific goals, and tells us ways to get there.  It doesn’t generally set those goals.

So scientists may give you different advice depending on whether your main goal is:

  • Protecting BC’s Coast, the Great Bear Rainforest and the Fraser and Skeena River Watersheds from oil leaks and spills;
  • Transitioning BC away from a fossil fuel economy, addressing and building a renewable energy economy; or
  • Exporting unrefined oil from the Alberta Tar Sands as quickly as possible. 

British Columbians generally rank the first of those goals fairly highly.  The last, not quite so much. 

3.    Don’t politicize the process before you even start

Just a thought, but publicly vilifying members of the public who have signed up to speak at a hearing, and others who thinks that a project is a bad idea, as “radicals”, before you even start your process is probably not really a good way to promote a “independent, scientific” process. 

Same thing for announcing that participant funding – including funding to hire scientific experts – should only be available to those who want to see the project go ahead

A truly scientific process needs to be open to the possibility that proceeding with the project is not a good idea.  If the Prime Minister’s latest statements mean a move away from vilifying or dismissing opponents of particular industrial projects, then that’s a good thing. 

4.    Don’t fire or muzzle your scientists, or independent agencies

In order to have a credible scientific process it’s important for the federal government to have access to scientists.  So firing scientists focused on internationally recognized work on climate change, fresh water pollution, and marine pollution to name just a few, resulting in protests by scientists and editorials in the internationally-recognized journal Nature, probably does not demonstrate the right commitment to science. 

Nor does eliminating independent agencies, like the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy apparently because you don’t like the advice you receive

Of course, it’s not just the cuts.  It’s also the limits placed on the ability of scientists to share and talk publicly about their findings.  As we’ve written previously:

[T]he increased politicization of public science seems to be on the rise.  While a communications policy limiting the ability of scientists to speak may make sense politically, what we really need is a scientific policy that affirms the important role of publicly employed scientists and protects their independence and ability to speak freely and publicly.

5.    Don’t cut the process short if more time is needed for a scientifically defensible result

Finally, Bill C-38, and last week’s amended order, have placed strict time limits on federal environmental assessments.  Specifically, the Enbridge Joint Review Panel has until December 2013 to finish its report, and most assessments have one year (not counting delays caused by the project proponent). 

While we agree that environmental assessments can, and should, be done as efficiently as possible, the reality is that good science can take time, especially when evaluating large and complicated projects.  And that’s particularly the case when you’ve cut back on the number of government scientists available to do the work. 

Allowing government scientists – as well as community groups and First Nations – the time that they need to conduct original research, or recreate or double-check the research compiled by a company, is essential to a scientific process.

In Conclusion

While it sounds pleasant for the government to talk about its commitment to a science-based, independent decision about Pipelines and Tankers Projects such as the Enbridge project, that commitment needs to go beyond mere statements.  It needs to be reflected in a clear governmental commitment to good science and transparency.  In that spirit, we offer the above rules for consideration by the Prime Minister. 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer