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Flawed joint review panel doesn’t reflect science-based policy

If the government is committed to an independent, rigorous scientific assessment then it cannot base a decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline on this flawed report. To do so will simply serve to further undermine both public confidence and government credibility.
Oil and water mixing.

This op-ed was published in the Hill Times on June 9, 2014. You can find the online article here.

OTTAWA—Last week, prominent Canadian scientists released an analysis of the Joint Review Panel’s (JRP) assessment of the Northern Gateway Pipeline. A letter, signed by more than 300 scientists, calling on the Prime Minister to reject the report, accompanied the analysis. This comes as a final decision on the controversial pipeline project is expected in the coming weeks.

The letter is sure to spur debate over the appropriate role of scientific evidence in important government decisions like the Northern Gateway pipeline.

The Prime Minister has stated from the outset that the pipeline project would be “evaluated on an independent basis scientifically” and Joe Oliver, the former Natural Resources minister, called the report “a rigorous, open and comprehensive science-based assessment.”

Even those who support evidence-based decision-making understand that important policy decisions aren’t made solely on the basis of science. Nor should they be. There are other issues that merit careful consideration by those charged with making the final decision.

Yet, science plays a critical role in informing that decision by rigorously and comprehensively evaluating the benefits and the risks to a wide range of Canadian values, from economic development to environmental protection. A rigorous, uncompromised scientific assessment is necessary, not only for making an informed policy decision, but also for ensuring government transparency and accountability. Evidence is our only hope of accountability and our only way to judge the decisions made by our elected officials.

The JRP was tasked with doing precisely this—gathering the evidence and determining whether, after all the potential benefits and risks are weighed, the project is in the best interests of Canadians.

However, the analysis released last week by Canadian scientists—scientists who have the expertise and reputation to evaluate the report—indicates a number of serious flaws in the JRP investigation process and the final report. In particular, the analysis points to a number of instances where evidence that appeared relevant to the decision was not considered (without adequate justification) and where conclusions were drawn that either appear inconsistent with a substantial body of evidence or for which the associated rationale appears unjustified.

One key issue brought forward by the scientists concerns apparent bias in the scope of the inquiry. Unbiased assessment requires that the scope of inquiry be the same on both sides of the equation. For example, the scope must be the same when assessing both potential environmental impacts and potential economic benefits. To do otherwise necessarily biases the benefit/cost calculation: the broader the scope of the economic benefits analysis, and the narrower the scope of the environmental impacts analysis, the greater the equation skews in favour of the potential benefits. Yet in the scientists’ view, the report looked at very broad economic benefits—including benefits of increased oil sands production—but a considerably smaller set of environmental risks. For example, the report did not include the potential environmental effects of increased oil production, only of transportation (it also didn’t include effects of burning the fossil fuel.) The report considers the upstream economic benefits, but not the upstream environmental costs.

The scientists’ analysis comes on the heels of a series of media stories documenting problems with the rigour of the JRP process and the quality of their evidence. For example, the strict time deadline combined with chronic funding cuts to government science meant that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was not able to complete their assessment of the potential risks to the rivers and streams the proposed pipeline will cross.

Scientists aren’t the only ones with concerns about the quality of the JRP report. A group of concerned engineers in British Columbia has completed a detailed analysis of the risk assessment used by the JRP to evaluate the risk of tanker spills and concluded—worryingly—that the risk calculations are “flawed and unscientific.”

These analyses raise serious concerns about the JPR review. If—as Harper and Oliver have repeatedly stated—the government is committed to an independent, rigorous scientific assessment—then it cannot base a decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline on this flawed report. To do so will simply serve to further undermine both public confidence and government credibility.

Katie Gibbs is a biologist and the executive director of Evidence for Democracy.

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