COMMENTARY: Environmental assessment process needs overhaul

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Geoffrey V. Hurley, M.Sc. has over 40 years of professional experience at the senior executive level with the fishing and offshore oil and gas industries, as a biologist with the federal government (Department of Fisheries and Oceans), and as an independent environmental consultant. Retired, he lives in Dartmouth, N.S. Email: [email protected]

A certain famous frog named Kermit who once stated that it “isn’t easy being green” would be shocked to find that it is actually quite easy to get regulatory approval for potential environmentally harmful large-scale development projects in Canada.

Recent ministerial approval of Bay du Nord, the first remote, deep-water mega oil project off Newfoundland attests to that. The environmental review of this project did not include consideration of the irreparable harm to the environment of vast volumes of greenhouse gases when burned “downstream.” These emissions are estimated to be the equivalent of the emissions of 7-10 million cars per year.

For most projects, environmental impact assessment is the frontline of ecological protection. However, very few proposed projects of any size are ever rejected by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada based on these assessments. This is not entirely surprising for smaller-scale projects where residual effects are expected to be minor with appropriate mitigation. It is harder to understand for large-scale developments, such as natural resource extraction projects where consequences of an accidental event such as a blow-out/large oil spill offshore can be catastrophic.

A proposed floating, production, storage and offloading vessel for the Bay du Nord project off Newfoundland and Labrador has attracted a criticism. Equinor Canada illustration - File Photo
A proposed floating, production, storage and offloading vessel for the Bay du Nord project off Newfoundland and Labrador has attracted a criticism. Equinor Canada illustration – File Photo

 

Vested interest

A principal reason is that assessments focus on narrow project elements rather than taking a “holistic” view of the environment. They do not always consider broader, cumulative effects or the importance of social, cultural, spiritual and economic aspects of the environment.

Another major reason is that development is equated with economic growth and jobs (and therefore votes), so politicians have a vested interest in ensuring a proposed project is approved. Critics claim that environmental impact assessments are also inherently biased towards project approval, in part because project proponents pay for them.

Over the course of my 40-year professional career, I have gained a variety of perspectives on the environmental assessment process, as a subject matter expert (marine fisheries management), a practitioner and as a senior environmental adviser to the offshore petroleum industry. Besides the broader issues with environmental assessments mentioned above, there are several more practical weaknesses in the system that need to be rectified to regain credibility and public trust in the process.

Stakeholders complain that they often face barriers in opposing projects which typically have considerable momentum before the assessment even gets started. They experience restricted opportunities for public participation, lack of funding for interventions and short timelines to respond to draft versions. Environmental reports are often voluminous, poorly organized and overly technical. It all results in an inefficient, time-consuming and costly exercise.

Surprisingly, there appears to be little uptake for streamlining the environmental assessment process by insisting that reports be more concise, straightforward and transparent.


Environmental reports are often voluminous, poorly organized and overly technical. It all results in an inefficient, time-consuming and costly exercise.


Weak link

The actual risk assessment process itself — where risk rankings are assigned to each potential impact category — is as they say, “where the rubber meets the road.” These rankings are the basis for significance determination and ultimately whether a project is a “go” or “no go.”

Despite its obvious importance, I would describe this process as a “black box” since individuals involved in the ranking are rarely if ever identified in the assessment reports. This is important since many of the rankings are based on qualitative rather than quantitative measures. Consequently, there is no possibility of evaluating whether there was a broad enough range of relevant and objective expertise to have made valid and therefore defensible decisions.

Surprisingly, most stakeholders and even some “outside” subject matter experts have not clued into this weak link in arguably the most critical phase of the assessment.

Protect well-being

One fix is to identify and remove such projects from the environmental assessment process altogether up front. In that way, all interests would know early in the game whether a project qualifies (or not) to go forward for further assessment. To that end, I would recommend that the federal government, in concert with provincial governments and Indigenous groups, work as equal partners to promote policies that would protect the environment and the well-being of stakeholders and the community at large in the event of an unplanned “worst case” incident.

The idea is that once a policy or plan has been formally adopted, there would be no going back on it under any circumstance.

For example, if the Canadian government endorsed certain global guidelines and commitments related to climate change, such as caps on greenhouse gas emissions, then proposals to build new massive emitters of these gases should clearly be off the table for further assessment. Economic or political expediency would no longer trump environmental protection.

Another idea is that if a project did manage to qualify for further assessment, a consulting firm contracted by the proponent could prepare the front end of the assessment. That might include the project description, scoping and summary of stakeholder consultation whilst an independent team of relevant subject matter experts chosen by the regulator would conduct the actual environmental effects assessment. This would go a long way to improving the optics and acceptance of outcomes of the assessment process.

Steven Guilbeault, federal minister of environment and climate change, speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. - Reuters
Steven Guilbeault, federal minister of environment and climate change, speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. – Reuters

 

Outside the box

Firmly adopting such a policy at an early stage would, for example, have saved federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault from a lawsuit to overturn his decision approving a risky offshore oil development by his former environmental activist colleagues. Instead, he could have simply pointed to the policy or the decision by an independent team of experts.

It may also encourage “big-oil” interests and others to accelerate their investments in carbon-capture technologies and other forms of energy production. At the same time, I recognize that there is a current need in Canada for transitional fuels like diesel, propane and natural gas for reasons of national security and to get us through to a largely renewable energy-based economy.

These “outside of the box” modifications to the environmental assessment process could also be extended to new applications for other environmentally high-risk or ecologically destructive practices such as forest clearcutting, coal mining, open-pen salmon culture, fish bottom trawling, and more.

If these ideas were adopted, I am sure that Kermit the frog would be happy to learn that in the case of environmental regulatory approvals he was not wrong and that it “isn’t easy being green.”

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