January 14, 2012 – In today’s Ottawa Citizen, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley uses the tribunal holding hearings on the Northern Gateway to point out the real pipeline debate:
Increasingly, however, a vocal minority sees these regulatory proceedings, not as opportunities to ensure fact-based decision-taking as we develop our resources, but as a place to argue that such development ought not to be allowed at all…allowing such hijacking of the regulatory process allows a vociferous minority to achieve indirectly what they could not win through legitimate democratic debate: the power to block natural resource development.
Crowley concludes, “The ‘right to be heard’ is an important one, but it has to be made compatible with the right of Canadians to see their resources developed thoughtfully and responsibly. Achieving that balance has just rocketed to the top of the national agenda.”
By Brian Lee Crowley, Ottawa Citizen, January 14, 2012
The start of hearings about the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to take Alberta oil to the west coast has been notable mostly for the venomous invective hurled about by the interested parties. Yet beneath the exaggerated charge and counter charge the hawk-eyed can discern the very earliest stages of a national debate that will preoccupy us for the next decade or two.
Like it or not, Canada’s economic strength has always been closely tied to natural resources. We are abundantly blessed with them, we have great expertise in extracting and processing them, we have one of the world’s great markets for financing them, and we have spent liberally on pipelines and railways and ports to take them to market.
In return natural resources have generally been kind to us. Growing global demand has driven up the price we get for them while the cost of many imports, such as manufactured goods, has remained stable or fallen. This improvement in what the economists call the terms of trade is a major cause of Canada leading the G7 in terms of income growth in recent years.
The phenomenal economic development of countries like China and India, with their insatiable appetite for our resources, has broadened markets for what we produce. That doesn’t eliminate the risk of falls in resource prices, but it makes extended declines less likely for the foreseeable future.
Yet at exactly the moment when resource investment and development, particularly in the west and the north, seem poised to take Canada to unheard of levels of prosperity, we are discovering the weakness of the institutions we have created to manage such growth in the public interest.
Take the tribunal holding hearings on the Northern Gateway. It is premised on the idea that Canadians favour the development of their resources, but want that development to proceed in accordance with high standards of safety, environmental protection and social responsibility. Technical experts, paid for by the state, subject things like pipeline proposals to searching analysis and criticism, ensuring that they meet our standards before proceeding. In their analysis they are aided by a mandatory public hearing process that is intended to assemble and then critically evaluate, by written and oral cross-examination, factual evidence put forward by proponents and opponents.
Increasingly, however, a vocal minority sees these regulatory proceedings, not as opportunities to ensure fact-based decision-taking as we develop our resources, but as a place to argue that such development ought not to be allowed at all.
But that is a political and a moral argument that such agencies are not equipped to deal with. There is a world of difference between the assumption that projects that meet Canada’s technical, environmental and social standards are in the public interest and should proceed, and the assumption that development is somehow in principle undesirable and ought not to be allowed.
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.
It is not that such disagreements cannot be grappled with in a democratic society. Rather it is that regulatory tribunals are not the place to do so. Conflicts over beliefs and values are properly resolved—indeed can only be resolved—in the political arena. We have to separate the question of whether we want natural resource development from the one about whether specific projects are up to standard.
The stakes are enormous. Under the current dispensation, thousands of people, some of them apparently inhabiting different continents, can sign up to participate in the Northern Gateway hearings causing enormous delay while manifestly not contributing to the tribunal’s goal of ensuring a reasoned consideration of the project’s merits.
Such delays themselves are hugely costly to project proponents but are essentially costless to opponents. Capital that could be used putting Canadians to work and developing our resources can be driven out by regulatory uncertainty and long approval delays just as surely as by outright rejection of a project.
With oil sands production in Alberta set to exceed pipeline capacity within a few short years, blocking new pipeline construction would have the effect of stranding new production and the forgoing of billions of dollars of investment and thousands of new jobs across Canada. Allowing such hijacking of the regulatory process allows a vociferous minority to achieve indirectly what they could not win through legitimate democratic debate: the power to block natural resource development.
The “right to be heard” is an important one, but it has to be made compatible with the right of Canadians to see their resources developed thoughtfully and responsibly. Achieving that balance has just rocketed to the top of the national agenda.
Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.
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