Last week I was asked what I thought a person needed to know to make good decisions on energy projects affecting sensitive ecosystems or the climate.
Given that the Trudeau government has failed so miserably to deliver on its promise of reforming the review system for these — merely erecting more sham processes riddled with conflicts of interest as diversionary facades to what still appear to be Harperesque predetermined outcomes — my response was naturally rhetorical: did they mean the average voter who must decide whether to support a project, or a person in a position of decision-making power? The distinction, in my mind, was critical.
For citizens, a first level of awareness must be that both public information and dialogue on any project is spun, often by both proponent and detractor (although seriously skewed in the direction of "Let's get to Yes," to mine a current right-wing, neoliberal, radical-extractionist meme). Thus, informed decisions cannot rely on mainstream media reporting, requiring we dig into the meat of an issue on our own. Fortunately, this is easier to do now than ever. Unfortunately, it presupposes people care enough to dig, and have the analytical skills to adjudicate when faced with real evidence and information, which many do not. But we can at least remember this: though some economic benefit accrues from any energy project, there is never any environmental benefit. Contrary to Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna's assertion, there is no such thing as "balancing" the environment and the economy, only degrees of environmental damage. The economy exists on the back of the environment and never vice versa. That environment is responsible for supplying ecosystem services that support all life on this planet, including our own. The economy, on the other hand, is an abstract construct that supplies nothing of intrinsic value to anything but an individuals' wealth. The take home: any economic benefit also comes at a direct cost to humanity, a cost seldom factored in. Thus, acceptable environmental/ecological/climate impact should be the conceptual starting point, followed by the autoecological impact on humans dwelling on or near the project, upstream/downstream issues, cultural concerns, and then, and only then, economic benefit. This, you will note, is the opposite of current thinking and process.
For decision-makers, what's desperately needed is true objectivity. It's a sad fact that scientific or economic information provided by proponents is intrinsically biased; furthermore, government science can also be biased depending on the culture within agencies, how much housecleaning has been done since the previous administration, or (most often) lack of manpower and resources. To be truly in the public interest, information must come from a third-party agency akin to the American Environmental Protection Agency (funded both by government and industry mandates — not donations) that answers to neither. If you don't think this is a problem, on CBC Radio 1's program The 180 last week, a university economist and policy analyst allowed that all economic impact statements for large resource projects are smoke-and-mirrors, concocted through the summing of direct (most objective) benefits, indirect (wishful thinking) benefits, and inferred (sucking on nitrous oxide) benefits. The basic formula for those writing such statements was to pick a ballpark number for the real outcome, then double it. An Oct. 7 article in the Tyee.ca by award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk uncorks how a Ministry of Natural Resources missive guiding the feds on pipeline approvals was found dangerously inaccurate and misleading by noted B.C. economist Robyn Allan. The memo, extolling the benefits of more bitumen pipelines, was riddled with both factual and analytical errors: "In a detailed 10-page letter... Allan has warned Jim Carr, Minister of Natural Resources, that the memo's conclusions are 'unreliable and yet, based on recent public statements, you have adopted them to conclude new pipelines, such as Trans Mountain's expansion, are necessary.'"
Specifically Allan found claims that: 1) the country's pipelines are overcapacity; 2) that new capacity of a million barrels per day is required by 2020; 3) that lack of access to tidewater has cost the economy billions; and 4) that Asian markets for bitumen are growing, were all patently false — and detailed why (http://thetyee.ca/News/2016/10/07/Pipeline-Memo-Mistakes/). It's a devastating but welcome rebuke that calls full bullshit on both federal and provincial (Alberta and B.C.) government positions.
To sum: what's necessary to make good decisions on energy projects? Either for the government to stop selling lies, or for us to stop buying them.