"This is the year when governments had agreed to substantially reduce the rate of biodiversity loss: this has not happened. Instead of reflecting, governments, business and society as a whole need to urgently renew and recommit to this enterprise if sustainability is to be realized in the 21st century.” – United Nations Global Biodiversity Outlook ( May 10, 2010)1
Although governments around the world agreed in 2002 to reverse the biodiversity decline, this recent United Nations report shows that rates of decline have actually increased dramatically with the intensity of development.
Important as it is, it is not just the migratory salmon that are in decline. It is all of biodiversity that is reaching a tipping point under pressures we impose on it.
While governments and corporations should be held accountable, we collectively bear the responsibility for this deteriorating situation. This is a consumer society. Corporate interests play a role in shaping expectations, but ultimately governments and corporations merely respond to the choices we make. In that respect, we are complicit in green-washing.
We accept the half truths and illusions of Premier Campbell’s green-wash, because it helps us perpetuate the illusion that we can continue to maintain a high-impact lifestyle without ever facing the consequences. Government programmes maintain the illusion of sustainability by perpetuating the illusion that current economic assumptions are sustainable.
The ongoing Gulf of Mexico disaster is simply a reminder of the actual costs of trying to sustain the economic expectations of a North-American consumer society. There is a growing risk and impact associated with this lifestyle. The 1969 Santa Barbara blow-out spilled 80,000 barrels of crude. The 1989 Exxon Valdes spilled 250,000 barrels of crude. It is significant that 20 years on, the magnitude of this accident will dwarf the magnitude of the Exxon Valdes accident.2 The risks inherent in this project, and the difficulties in controlling the accident were driven by the necessity to drill below 5,000 ft. The risks inherent in drilling for resources that are harder to access are that much greater, and the impacts are proportional to that risk.
Our demands have environmental and social impacts. In a world of finite and declining energy resources, it is impossible to expect government and corporations to provide for our spiralling energy demands and to simultaneously allay our consciences by completely removing impacts on the environment.
Recent trends in public administration, at all levels of government, regional to federal, claim to “harmonize”and make the assessment and review processes more efficient. In reality, this trend removes existing checks and balances, cuts out public input from the review process, and exonerates the civil service from public accountability.
Environmental impacts are the cost of doing business and of our economic expectations. Environmental assessments are part of a risk management strategy. The high risks inherent in resource and energy development projects have long-term implications for the public. The assessment of those risks should never be left up to government alone. It is a matter of public choice.
The Daily Environmental Risk Demand
Although the estimates show that the supply of non-renewable resources is sufficiently plentiful to power energy needs for the next millennium, if technology evolves and mitigates pollution,3 recovery of these supplies will become more expensive and risky over time. The driving principle is simple: as the quality of a resource declines, the recovery costs increase and demand increases the risks inherent in recovery.
“As non-renewable resources diminish, the efficiency of resource capital declines – one unit of capital delivers fewer and fewer resources to the industrial sector. As resources are consumed, the quality of remaining reserves is assumed to decline. Deposits are assumed to be discovered deeper and to be exploited farther and farther from their places of use. That means that more capital and energy will be necessary to extract, refine, and transport a ton of copper, or a barrel of oil.”4
The risk factor and impacts implicit in energy demands also apply to renewable projects. Every time we plug in one more implement we potentially sanction the damming of our rivers. Just as every time we turn on the ignition in our vehicles, we increase the risk of another oil blowout or an expansion of the Athabasca Tar Sands.
The demand for environmental protection does not really square with the demand for unsustainable endless growth, and an endless energy supply to sustain that growth. We delude ourselves if we think that tightening regulations will be enough to off-set the growing risks. The limits on these risks have to be pushed back to meet our demands.
In spite of a 2001 make-over to bill itself as a “green” oil company, BP has continued to be accused of green-wash, in its Athabasca Tar sands, and Beaufort Sea interests.5 The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has brought to light a long catalogue of misdemeanours by British Petroleum in collusion with the Minerals Management Service and the political corruption that squashed EPA efforts to enforce environmental regulations.6 Between 2001 and 2007 in the Gulf of Mexico alone there were 1,443 serious drilling accidents, and 356 oil spills. 7
The public has to understand that, nothwithstanding BP’s claims that it will honour its obligations to pay for “all necessary and appropriate costs,” this does not mean that it will necessarily bear all costs.8. The recent U.S. Supreme Court judgement against fishermen and other plaintiffs versus Exxon (Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker) has set a new bar protecting and minimizing corporate liabilities. Under this new ruling BP’s “punitive damages cannot exceed compensatory damages.” People harmed by BP’s negligence will have no real recourse.9 It is important to note that this American ruling has implications in Canada, because it sets a precedent within Anglo-American law.
The nub of the problem lies in how we define our priorities and “the public interest.” If we perceive the economy as the priority, then the environmental outcomes of economic activity are secondary. The reason why BP and other corporations will not be held accountable is that their economic well-being is in the public interest. We live in a corporate economy, and the public interest is the corporate interest – as long as the priority is economic. Environmental accidents are not in the interest of the corporations – but they are part of the demands we make of the economy.
Environmental Assessments and Environmental Protection
As the record shows, after the fact, self-regulation, loose environmental assessments and a cozy relationship with government civil servants and agencies all contributed to the conditions that made the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe possible.10 As a member of the International Association for Impact Assessments, it is my belief that similar conditions could apply to Canada.
Tougher regulations can always be circumvented, and their enforcement depends on judicial and political will. That will is primarily constrained by the perception of the public good. The practical question is therefore not whether more regulations can prevent impacts, but whether the mechanisms in place are sufficiently strong to constrain both corporations and governments to define the public interest in keeping with environmental sustainability rather than economic sustainability.
Premier Harper has re-assured Canadians that this kind of catastrophe is impossible in Canada, because of our strong drilling regulations.11 These re-assurances fall flat. We can only contain the risks and impacts so much; the more we take risks, the higher the probability that accidents will occur.
The public and many politicians have a poor understanding of British Columbia’s Environmental Assessment Act and of the federal Environmental Assessment Act and of their relationship. This is particularly so in two respects.
One often hears opposition politicians and environmentalists complain that these acts have been weakened and that the proof is in the low number of projects rejected. This is not really so. The revised acts contain more requirements and the process contains more hurdles, and therefore could be seen as more rigorous. Projects can be (and are) rejected at any one of the steps; therefore the ones that do reach the final point of permitting are less likely to be rejected.
The second point of confusion is the misconception that an environmental impact assessment is a comprehensive environmental protection process. The general understanding for environmental professionals is that the environmental impact assessment process is actually designed to weigh potential risks and mitigate potential impacts posed by development projects. The key here is to remember that the focus is on “the impact,” not on environmental protection. The aim of an environmental impact assessment is mainly, where possible, to assist the project proponent in making a better or more “sustainable” project. It is not to advocate for environmental priorities distinct from the project needs.
From this perspective, it should be clear that environmental assessments favour corporate interests, which are assumed to be – and may well be- synonymous with public interests. However, some recent developments in the process should be of concern to the public.
It has long been a concern of both governments and industry that the provincial and federal environmental assessment processes, appeared to needlessly duplicate functions and extend the review time needlessly. The BC Environmental Assessment Office and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency have recently signed memoranda of understanding to harmonize their functions.
In the name of “harmonization and business efficiency,” some processes have been eliminated that were perceived as duplications by industry, but were perceived as checks and balances in a deliberative process by some environmental professionals and environmental NGOs. Under the terms of these new agreements the BC Environmental Assessment Office will now defer its prerogatives to the federal agency. In return the federal Assessment Agency will review the documents prepared for BCEAO and may accept their reports and findings in lieu of commissioning its own review. Additionally, this means that provincial staff can be exchanged for federal staff and vice versa, and that professional consultants hired by proponents can also work for both the BCEAO and federal CEAA.
This means that the federal and provincial public servants in the BCEAO and CEAA are endorsing an interpretation of the “public interest” which equates it with “corporate interest.”
In my professional opinion, this is not quite self-regulation, such as we have just seen in the U.S. Department of Interior’s failure to adequately regulate and assess risks,12 but it is extremely close to it. Just as democracy depends on a clear separation of Church and State, so does environmental protection, and sound science, depend on a clear separation of corporations and State. The State, the Church, and the corporations all serve certain aspects of the public interest, but the comprehensive public interest is only served if these institutions’ powers are kept in check.
Environmental Protection and Public Consultation
Two of the spin-offs of the “harmonization” process at both the BCEAO and the CEAA have been the almost simultaneous move at both the federal and provincial level to exclude the public from the consultation process. When the Harper government implemented Bill C-9, Jobs and Economic Growth Act it did not “reconcile(d) economic, social and environmental elements of development projects,” by removing the stakeholder consultation process.13.13
Section 4 of the provincial Bill 17 (2010) The Clean Energy Act takes similar draconian steps by removing the requirement for a “Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.” The exclusion of the B.C. Utilities Commission from the process means that the public can no longer apply for intervener status in the review process.14
These political moves are consistent with the legal and professional limitations of the provincial environmental assessment acts. The public is effectively removed from having a direct say in the conservation concerns of the environment, seemingly, “for its own good.” This is an unsustainable structural imbalance in the political system which is at odds with conservation objectives, and international agreements – such as the Convention on Biodiversity, to which Canada is signatory.
If these are the interpretations of the public good and of the function provincial and federal Environmental Assessment Acts, then clearly, the values of a substantial segment of the Canadian population which acts as the “environmental lobby” are not covered. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was at least able to maintain a semblance of objectivity in attempted prosecutions of BP and they will undoubtedly play an important role in the future of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.15
Under the current regulatory regime in Canada, it is unclear who would assume a similar role given the current interpretation of the public interest by a corporate state.
The public cannot rely on the government or the civil service to protect its interests, unless it believes that its interests are those of BP , General Electric and other large corporations that control our energy future and our economy. The civil service’s clear alignment with corporate interests, marginalizes and replaces the environmental interests of the public. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is part of a timeline of an exponentially growing series of environmental impacts from Santa Barbara (1969) to the Exxon Valdes (1989) that tells us about the mounting risks and costs ahead, if we place our trust in public servants.
If we take sustainability seriously, then we must take our environmental obligations to future generations seriously, and seek to make personal lifestyle changes that break our energy dependency on these corporations. Only the public can guarantee future generations the environmental protection we owe them, and a sustainable future. The public must therefore be directly involved in environmental assessment reviews, if we are to prioritize sustainable environmental values.
- Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 http://gbo3.cbd.int/
- Richard Kerr, Eli Kintisch and Erik Stokstad (7 May 2010). “Will Deepwater Horizon Set a New Standard for Catastrophe. Science 328, 674-675.
- Mark Jaccard (2005). Sustainable FossilFuels. Cambridge University Press, 381 pages.
- Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green, 145.
- John Spittal. (15 April 2010). “Greenpeace “greenwashes” at BP Calgary HQ”. CBC.
- Michael Isikoff and Michael Hirsch (7 May 2010). “Slick Operator: How British oil giant BP used all the political muscle money can buy to fend off regulators and influence investigations into corporate neglect. Newsweek.
- Eric Lipton and John Broder. (7 May 2010) “Regulator Deferred to Oil Industry on Rig Safety.” New York Times.
- (3 May 2010). “BP Vows to pay all costs of oil spill cleanup.” CBC.
- Nan Aron (30 April 2010). “Oil Spills Onto Legal Landscape Damaged by the Roberts Court.” Huffington Post.; Alliance for Justice http://www.afj.org/
- Greg Palast (5 May 2010). “Slick Operator: The BP I’ve Known too Well” Truthout; Michael Kunzelman and Richard Pienciak ( 6 May 2010). “Feds let BP avoid filing blowout plan for Gulf Rig.” Associated Press Hosted News; Dan Froomkin (3 May 2010). “NOAA Warned Interior It Was Underestimating Threat of Serious Spill.” Huffington Post; Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (5 May 2010). “Sex, Lies and Oil Spills.” Huffington Post.
- (3 May 2010). “Offshore spill won’t happen to Canada.” CBC.
- See 6 and 10 above.
- Barry Turner (21 April 2010). “Green Budget Coalition Opposes Budget Process to Weaken Environmental Protection Laws.” Green Budget Coalition.
- Jesse Ferreras (6 May 2010). “Clean Energy Act Drops Public Consult on Projects.” The Tyee.
- See 10 above.