In the face of mounting scientific criticism, the federal government convened a panel of leading scientists to review the environmental monitoring system in the tar sands region. The Panel’s report is well worth a read: concise, clear, and less than kind to the government.
The panel was asked if Canadians have a first-class state-of-the-art monitoring system in place in the oil sands. Their answer was an unequivocal No. They could have one, the report notes, but to get it Environment Canada needs to wrest control of the system out of the hands of the oil industry (who have a role to play in providing data, but EC needs to run the show).
The report, released in the week before Christmas as most people are otherwise occupied, risks being overlooked and that would be a shame. In particular, I haven’t been able to find one of the most interesting comments in any of the English coverage, so here is my translation back into English (this is Canada, after all) of what the Chair of the Panel, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, was reported saying in one of the French news stories:
“Until we will solve the problems associated with the surveillance system, you cannot trust what the data indicate, and consequently, you cannot credibly say that you are making the right decisions when you rely on this data.”
That’s right: If you can’t trust the data, you can’t trust the decision.
But let’s not be naive: this convenient blindness is no accident. Successive federal and provincial governments have essentially adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to regulating tar sands development in order to keep the oil money flowing regardless of what may be leaking into the water, air or soil. This has included a monitoring system that doesn’t really monitor, and a project approvals process that last week’s Royal Society report noted wouldn’t meet the standards for World Bank-financed projects in the Third World.
This is why Greenpeace and others are calling on governments to put the brakes on new projects until we have a realistic sense of their cumulative impacts. Some of these we already know, as in the finding from the Royal Society report that “increasing GHG emissions from growing bitumen production creates a major challenge for Canada to meet our international commitments for overall GHG emission reduction that current technology options do not resolve.”
Finally, it has to be acknowledged that this institutionalized scientific hypocrisy probably wouldn’t have been dragged into the light of day without the relentless intellectual assault mounted by Dr. David Shindler, one of Canada’s top water scientists, who also played a key role in getting acid rain onto the political agenda back in the 1980s.
He took a lot of cheap shots along the way, so it’s worth listening to his advice on what to look for in the new monitoring system they set up:
"It's going to require someone to run it who isn't going to take B.S. even from ministers or premiers or prime ministers to see the monitoring necessary is done and the results get reported to the public without spin doctors tampering with it."
I’ve put it on my wish list to Santa.