As Ontario enters the formal process of debating crude oil pipelines crossing our watersheds, one cannot escape the conclusion that our environmental laws and public decision making forums are failing us. Politics now trumps reason. Projects are effectively pre-approved regardless of science, facts, or alternatives. You need to look no further than Prime Minister Harper’s statement in New York when he said he will not take "no" for an answer regarding the U.S. regulatory decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.
The refusal to take "no" for an answer is nothing new for Canadians.
Linda Keen, the Chair of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), was fired in 2008 after saying "no" to an operating licence at Chalk River. In fact, since 2007, the federal Major Projects Management Office (MPMO) has worked with industry to remove any barrier to speedy approval of major resource projects across Canada. From the beginning, the MPMO targeted environmental protections as the greatest barrier to development. Funded with $150 million over 5 years, and joined by the previously independent National Energy Board (NEB) and CNSC, the MPMO led the charge to slash budgets for science, muzzle scientists, gut the Navigable Waters Protection Act and Fisheries Act, and narrow the scope of hearings.
The MPMO objective to ensure certainty and predictability was taken to an absurd extreme. Instead of conducting public processes and ensuring the project in public interest and best use of public resources - before granting approval - the MPMO just eliminated the hearing process altogether. This was deemed meeting the objective of certainty and predictability.
The changes to environmental law, policy and science transformed Canada's decision-making process into a political tool instead of a planning tool. Choices about public resources and environmental impacts were removed from debate. Open, transparent, public processes were replaced by political and corporate rhetoric. Projects were announced and sold. Concerned communities and groups who sought greater due diligence and oversight were ridiculed as anti-progress and naive. And the media, with no hard facts or competing choices to report on, were reduced to reporting on a fictitious, ideological scrap between “business” and “environmentalists”.
Despite all the changes and all the money, the plan to eliminate red tape and facilitate projects has failed. Our politicians misjudged.
Rules by edict, manipulating science and limiting public processes to arrive at pre-determined answers only fuelled more opposition. It also created uncertainty and confusion. Not one of the 70 major projects identified by the MPMO in 2007 have been implemented by 2012. Not taking "no" for an answer has not worked for Canadians.
With more federal hearings into high-risk projects such as pipelines, nuclear plants, and waste management in the next two months, it is good to remember this: only projects proven to be in the public interest will succeed. Sustainable projects require partnerships, participation, trust, and good government. Without these ingredients, the benefits are never worth the risks. And no community will be convinced to take the risk to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for political gain or corporate profit.
Mark Mattson is an environmental lawyer and president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. He sits on the board of directors of four other Waterkeeper organizations, including Waterkeeper Alliance.