Mr. Harper’s science problem

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper's setting of a Dec. 31, 2013 deadline for completion of the environmental review of the Northern Gateway project now is looking somewhat hasty. Mr. Harper is keen to get the review and approval process going, but his commitment to a hard and fast deadline seems out of step with the pace at which his own fisheries department can supply evidence that review will need. Canadians need to know this project gets the scrutiny it deserves.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/08/2012 (3641 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s setting of a Dec. 31, 2013 deadline for completion of the environmental review of the Northern Gateway project now is looking somewhat hasty. Mr. Harper is keen to get the review and approval process going, but his commitment to a hard and fast deadline seems out of step with the pace at which his own fisheries department can supply evidence that review will need. Canadians need to know this project gets the scrutiny it deserves.

The prime minister earlier this month assured Canadians that the fate of the plan by Enbridge to lay pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia coast south of Kitimat rests on science. The project has many critics and faces formidable obstacles, including the buy-in of all the First Nations bands that claim traditional rights to a lot of the land affected. British Columbia Premier Christy Clark wants to know what is in it for her province, since B.C. gets little of the profit but will shoulder most of the environmental risk.

Now reports on documents filed at the National Energy Board indicate that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was unable to give the review panel a complete picture of the risk presented to the nearly 1,000 streams and tributaries the new pipeline will cross. It has not completed the work and anticipates it may take longer than the time allotted: “…should the project be approved, our review will continue into the regulatory permitting phase,” the DFO wrote in a June 6 letter.

The final approval of the project rests with the federal cabinet. The recommendations of the NEB’s panel to cabinet are made following the consideration of concerns expressed at public hearings and the evidence from scientific sources of how environmental threats can be mitigated or compensated for. The DFO also noted in its correspondence that it has differences of opinion with Enbridge over the level of threat posed to some of the streams the pipeline crosses.

Excessively long environmental reviews that give a floor to long queues of intervenors duplicating concerns expressed merely ties up good economic development. But Mr. Harper’s emphasis on a deadline may prove too hopeful and do the broader process no favour. The real issue is whether, with good understanding of the potential impact on the environment, the merits of the project and the ability to mitigate the relative threats support its approval.

Mitigation is difficult if good environmental monitoring is not there. Mr. Harper’s government is in the midst of cuts to staff at DFO field offices, including those at Prince George and Smithers, which would have been in the lead of that work. These are all issues the review panel must consider.

The fisheries department not only has to assess the environmental threat, but also the federal government’s capacity to protect through monitoring and responding to any impact. Mr. Harper’s desire for an efficient, timely review is understandable, particularly in Canada’s economic climate. But Canadians need to trust that it will be done right. Artificial deadlines undermine that trust. Mr. Harper should publicly commit to extending the deadline if the NEB shows his schedule curtails a solid examination of the environmental threats.

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