Science got shafted in the Northern Gateway review

Thursday, February 20, 2014
Rob Smith and Scott Vaughan

The Northern Gateway pipeline project got a big green light in December. The assessment panel weighed concerns heard over 18 months from First Nations, scientists and communities about the potential effects of development — including the ecological catastrophe that would follow a spill along the proposed route. They also heard about the economic benefits that the pipeline would deliver: a $312 billion contribution to Canada’s GDP over 30 years, the creation of thousands of jobs and the opening of new global energy markets.

What’s a panel to do when weighing ecological risks against so much money in the bank? The Northern Gateway reviewers took a familiar page from the playbook of previous panels: doing an end-run around environmental concerns while hoping the pipeline delivers on its economic promises.

Nowhere was this approach clearer than in how concerns around combined or “cumulative” impacts on ecosystems were tackled. The panel accepted that a holistic approach mirroring the complexities of actual ecosystems would have been ideal. But it was just too complicated and there wasn’t enough scientific data. And, anyway, it really wasn’t the proponents’ responsibility.

Let’s face it. The outcome of the Northern Gateway review was a foregone conclusion. Of the roughly 80,000 assessments conducted between 1995 and 2011 under the old Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, only a handful have been rejected.


You can bet the federal cabinet, which has the final call on the pipeline’s future, won’t take no for an answer.

Waiting to see what the federal government does with review panel recommendations is a bit of a pastime in Canada. The most recent example is the Cohen Commission on the collapse of the Fraser River salmon fishery. Despite being requested by the prime minister himself, Justice Bruce Cohen’s thoughtful recommendations have gotten little but silence from Ottawa so far.

The Northern Gateway and B.C. salmon review panels have quite a lot in common. Both are under federal jurisdiction. Both were formed to bring a science-based perspective to ecosystem threats. And they both tackled, in principle, cumulative impacts on ecosystem health.

Understanding the threats facing a single species is hard enough. Justice Cohen did an exemplary job, highlighting the complex relationship between salmon and their ecosystems. In one of the report’s highlights, he called for the government to develop a research strategy to assess the cumulative effects of stressors on wild sockeye.


Meaningful assessment of cumulative impacts remains difficult because no one has shown the leadership to collect the data and do the science. Companies certainly won’t.

The Northern Gateway panel was charged with an even more complex task: estimating the future impacts of a pipeline through a diverse region home to caribou, grizzly bears, mountain goats, birds, marine mammals, forests and many other flora and fauna.

If there was ever a time to assess cumulative effects, this was it. And, to be fair, the panel did consider them. It noted that agriculture, forestry, oil and gas exploration, roads and pipelines already have disturbed 69 per cent of the proposed route. It noted that 95 per cent of the habitat of the Little Smoky caribou — at prior risk of extirpation and now at further risk from the project — is already disturbed.

In other words, plenty of threats to the region’s wildlife exist today. On top of this, the pipeline will disturb an additional 425 square kilometres of pristine wilderness — an area bigger than Montreal.

So what did the panel conclude? First, it found that caribou and grizzly bears along the route will experience “significant adverse effects” from the pipeline. But since there are already plenty of pipelines, roads and other disturbances, what’s another pipeline going to do? Any additional damage, the panelists concluded, is “outweighed” by the potential societal and economic benefits of the project.

Interveners in the review argued that the project should have been subject to what they called an “ecosystem-based” assessment. Northern Gateway proponents countered that assessing synergistic impacts of multiple stressors is “difficult” and the “science is poor.” Couldn’t a multi-billion-dollar project find a few dollars for better science? Apparently not.

Meaningful assessment of cumulative impacts remains difficult because no one has shown the leadership to collect the data and do the science. Companies certainly won’t. Their obligation is to assess the direct footprint of their projects and nothing more. The federal government seems unwilling to act on the recommendations of its own commissions. Clashing values seem the likely cause of this reluctance.

Actually assessing ecosystems might put the environment on the same footing as the economy. The government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year measuring the economy. Results are diligently reported on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis. Comparatively, it spends little measuring the environment and even less reporting on it. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has noted, if our measurements are inadequate, then our decisions will be distorted.

Correcting this will require acknowledging that the environment and the economy are not at odds. Canadians understand that the environment underpins the economy. But the federal government prefers to see the two as competing. It’s time for this phony clash of values to end.

But this lesson won’t be learned unless we start measuring the right things. We already do a good job on the economy. With equally good measures of natural capital — what statisticians call ‘environmental accounts’ — we stand a chance of balanced decision-making.

Without them, decision-makers will be “operating in the dark,” to quote the Canada West Foundation. Review panels will continue coming to the same conclusions. Ecosystems will continue their decline. And we will keep wondering why.

Scott Vaughan is the president and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). From 2008 to 2013 he was Canada’s federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development. Robert Smith is an IISD associate assisting with its work in measurement and knowledge management. He is a former director of the Environmental Accounts and Statistics Division, Statistics Canada.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

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