Keystone Cop Out

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After American assurances that the multi-billion dollar Keystone pipeline would receive political support, it instead received its very own BAPE report.    It’s all summed up by a political cartoon of Obama saying  “I was concerned about its impact on the ‘election’½.  I mean the ‘environment’.”   There will now be a two year study to take the decision past the next election.  Déjà vu anyone?

Should society be concerned when political leadership capitulates not to sound and rational argument but to ideologues’ ability to organize protests?   In the case of Keystone is there really any serious concern whether under good regulation Trans Canada knows how to build and operate a pipeline?    It is not hard to grasp that the foundation of opposition is those environmentalists who don’t like oil from oil sands and don’t think past that. 

So a study of up to two years in America starts with a credibility problem:  we all know the real reason the Obama administration decided to have the study.  This matters because it is important to all stakeholders that environmental studies have public confidence and don’t become simple tools of political expediency.  

If you want a case in point, look to the irony in Quebec.  The very protestors that successfully objected to the BAPE’s original mandate, are now the loudest protesting they don’t trust the resulting SEA process.  This after successfully replacing a drilling engineer on the committee with over thirty years drilling experience in Quebec, with a former Greenpeace activist.  Perhaps they doth protest too much and it’s a challenge to the SEA.

The SEA Committee is made of expert stakeholders selected to represent various stakeholder groups in society.   With notable exceptions, this is far from a panel of scientific experts.  For the New York environmental study, by far the most comprehensive to date, an advisory committee of similar types of expert stakeholders was formed.  But the study itself was left to the independent scientists in the Department of the Environment.  Access to a broad range of experts with real experience in a very high tech industry will not be easy inside Quebec where there is little history with oil and gas.

As the BAPE found, it’s tough to separate real experts from pseudo experts unless you have expertise on point.  It’s the reason they recommended the “study must be completed using the best scientific data, relying on verifiable sources of information”.  It’s a worry whether this committee will do any better distinguishing between the long debunked pseudo science of Tom Long or subway geologists and the genuine expert knowledge of a senior geologist from the Federal Ministry of Energy.    Or the difference between loss of well control and casing vent flows.   I could go on and if you follow my blog you know I do.

To meet its stated objective of ‘the broadest possible consensus with citizens, environmental groups and industry’ the SEA must do much better.  Not just with respect to the natural gas file but with respect to the integrity of a process that could become the model for all industries in Quebec.  

The SEA’s commitment to transparency will be essential.  The BAPE noted that the New York Department of the Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency offered to cooperate with a study.  I imagine if asked the Western Canadian provincial governments would too.  The BAPE recommended “the committee should explore this overture for the purpose of maximizing scientific benefits and sharing expertise”.  Making their recent report accessible to these groups would be a good step on this recommendation and transparency both.

The SEA might also look to the Democratically controlled EPA for guidance.  They worked to take politics out of their seminal study on hydraulic fracturing, awaited around the world by industry and environmentalists alike.   They did not allow their mandate to be expanded just to try to keep everyone happy.  They knew this only displeases when the report inevitably fails to answer “any other relevant question relating to exploration and exploitation of oil and gas and their impacts” which the SEA suggests is within their mandate.

Even after setting attainable expectations with a reasonably focused mandate and well defined questions, the EPA itself recognized:

  Answering these questions will involve the efforts of scientists and engineers with a broad range of expertise, including petroleum engineering, fate and transport modeling, ground water hydrology, and toxicology. The study will be conducted by multidisciplinary teams of EPA researchers, in collaboration with outside experts from the public and private sector. The Agency will use existing data from hydraulic fracturing service companies and oil and gas operators, federal and state agencies, and other sources. To supplement this information, EPA will conduct case studies in the field and generalized scenario evaluations using computer modeling.

It is science the EPA is trying to represent, not stakeholder groups.  If the EPA is faithful to that and keeps to their mandate they have potential to produce a report serious stakeholder groups will have no choice but to respect.