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Environmental Assessment in British Columbia: A Clear Conflict of Interest

2015-07-21

An article in the online BC Business (of Canada) (linked here) describes the serious loss of environmental objectivity in Canada related to drastic changes in the process for assessment of business projects for their environmental impacts.  In 2010, the Canada Environmental Assessment Administration’s budget was cut by 40% to $17 million and the environmental regulations were drastically overhauled to remove federal protection for 98 percent of Canada’s rivers and streams.  The Fisheries Act was changed to remove explicit habitat protection for all fish.  The process of environmental assessment for industrial projects was changed to allow the companies proposing projects to hire their own environmental consultants to do project assessments and provide “self-regulation.”

The result has been a confusing, poorly regulated system that confuses industry and provides no protection for the environment.  Companies that hire and pay for their own assessment consultants can pressure those consultants to give reports favorable to their positions and projects.  At the very least, a consultant who gives a negative report will find he gets no repeat business.  Despite this freedom, companies complain that the laws are confusing and the changes have resulted in considerable uncertainty.

With the fall in gas prices, the most damaging projects have been put on hold temporarily.  However, mines are still active, and they go through the same process of self-assessment and self-regulation.  Consulting firms are under heavy pressure to provide favorable reports and gloss over any environmental impacts that may occur.  The article reports on interviews with anonymous scientists who have worked for the consulting firms that demonstrate the drawbacks of the regulatory process.

Instead of evaluations done by scientists employed by government agencies that regulate environmental impacts of industry, outside scientists who are designated Registered Professional Biologists can vouch for the lack of impact that a project will have.  These biologists are hired and paid for by the companies, so they are beholden to them for support and repeat business.

Environmental assessment began in the 1970’s in the US with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act.  This same process was adopted worldwide; in Canada, laws passed in 1995 started the Canadian environmental protection agency.  The American Environmental Protection Agency has continued to aggressively attack environmental problems and polluters, but the Canadian agency has been slashed and rendered ineffective by the conservative government currently in power.

In a reversal of open scientific discourse, Environment Canada has prevented its scientists from speaking to the press after they publish scientific articles in major journals.  A particularly notorious case occurred in 2011 when the agency refused to allow Dr. David Tarasick to speak to journalists about his ozone layer research when it was published in Nature.  The written policy of the environmental agency and other government agencies is that its scientists must have explicit permission to speak to journalists before they can communicate; this policy makes muzzling of scientists easy.

The major problem with the environment in Canada is that the conservative government has gone to great lengths to gut previous advances in environmental policy and the media has been rendered silent by the government’s explicit policy of muzzling its scientists.  One particularly egregious example of the government’s environmental policy is the free rein that has been given to oil companies to extract tar sands oil from large areas of the Canadian Midwest.  The environmental damage that has been caused by extraction of tar sands oil is enormous and completely unreported.  Only the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has allowed any of this damage to be covered in American news.

The pipeline for tar sands oil must not be allowed to continue through the United States because it represents an easy out for Canadian developers; all the issues related to the extraction of tar sands oil must be aired in American news media.

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