by Matt Palmer
This opinion piece came out last week and it brings up some good points about the Northern Gateway hearing process.
“In the first case disagreements about whether projects meet our standards can usually be resolved by science and reason. In the second case we have disagreements over values and beliefs, such as whether a pristine environment ought to trump economic growth and job creation.”
The argument is that the regulatory process should only be about science and reason, and that is the way it is set up. I would argue though, that science and reason are interconnected with values and belief.
All oil companies are being tarnished with the same brush as being “evil and only concerned with profits”, and the environmental groups, and other concerned groups are being branded as “extreme radicals”. Neither of these characterizations is true. We may choose to disagree with what one side or the other is saying, but that does not mean that their arguments do not have value, or that they should not be considered. Mr Crowley seems to be saying that the environmental groups and other interveners are only opposing the pipeline based on values and belief judgment. I do not believe this is true. Environmentalism is not just a value and belief based movement, no more than the oil industry is purely based on economics. They both have those elements at their core, but there are more complexities at play.
The arguments against Northern Gateway do have science behind them, just like the arguments for Gateway have values and beliefs components. So while I agree on the one hand with Mr Crowley’s assessment of the regulatory process, and that it should be separate from the “political” issues of values and beliefs, there is no political venue to discuss these issues that allows all interested parties to debate. The other problem, as I see it, is that resource development is not solely about science and reason. Energy is a complex issue, and in order to fully understand and assess the value of development we must evaluate the social, political, economic, and environmental components. We must employ system thinking.
Now some might argue that having to deal with the social, economic, political, and environmental matters within the current regulatory process is not possible, but it is the reality. These issues are interconnected. We deny this reality at our own peril. 160 years ago when oil was struck and the race to exploit it began, no one had the foresight to imagine what the social, political, economic or environmental consequences would be. The development of oil as fuel source and feedstock revolutionized the world for good and bad. No one thought, “Ah, in 160 years they’ll be so screwed, but let’s do it anyway!”. They did it because it made sense at the time, and because the value proposition made sense. The use of oil helped to replace the use of whale oil, which in turn saved the whales from being hunted to extinction.
One of the reasons that there is a movement against oil and other fossil fuels is because there is a lack of understanding why we use them, and how that use helps us to fulfill our values and beliefs. Conversely, we have greater understanding of the negative impacts that come from fossil fuel use, and that those impacts are not aligned with our values and beliefs. The system is out of balance, and we need to determine how to right the ship. There is more talk about how the two sides are polarized rather than figuring out where the commonalities are, and how to figure out where we will have to give and take.
We have some important choices to make about how we show up in this process. If the current adversarial style process continues then there will be a price to pay for that. Both sides argue that the other side doesn’t understand the issues or the costs. Who is right? Maybe it’s not just about who is right. Perhaps there are other factors that must be considered.
The Northern Gateway regulatory process has already left the station. It is far from perfect. We can continue to complain and be angry about it, or we can choose to embrace it as best we can. The circus is going to happen, but rather than giving the fringe elements more oxygen than they deserve, we can choose to focus on the four imperatives of the social, political, economic and environmental elements. What can we learn from opposing sides that will strengthen the end result? Can we make a decision to step back from inflammatory emotion, and listen and evaluate the strength of each argument? It’s easy to be against things, but more constructive to build consensus. How do we make the regulatory process better? How do we make the pipeline better? How do we lessen environmental impacts from industrial processes that are necessary for human survival? What can we learn from ourselves and how we show up to these debates?
This is not an easy process. It is not about one side or the other “winning”. There are some hard, practical realities that come with our energy needs, and we will have to accept trade offs, whether you support the pipeline or not. We need to ask what is the common dream or vision that we all share? The Northern Gateway Pipeline debate is an opportunity to learn to do things better.