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Five Ways to Fix Environmental Reviews: Young Scientists to Trudeau

Fallout from environmental assessments or development decisions that don’t meet the highest scientific standards will land on the shoulders of the younger generation, which is why Canada’s lack of scientific rigour and transparency must be addressed now, say more than 1,300 young scientists who have written an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and six cabinet ministers.

“As the next generation of scientists in Canada, we are professionally and personally affected by how government evaluates the pros and cons of development, especially large-scale infrastructure and energy projects,” said lead author Aerin Jacob, a University of Victoria postdoctoral fellow who specializes in tradeoffs between conservation planning and sustainable development.

“Reviews based on limited or biased scientific information potentially put the environment and the well-being of Canadians at risk,” she said.

Trudeau has pledged to review environmental laws that were gutted by the former Conservative government and appointed a four-person panel to look at how to ensure assessments are based on sound science. Another five-member panel is holding consultations on how to reform the National Energy Board. And there’s also a review of the Fisheries Act underway.

Early-career researchers from universities across Canada, including the top 50 research universities, signed the letter.

Most of the researchers came of scientific age during the last decade, when the Harper government muzzled scientists, changed environmental protection laws — from the Fisheries Act to the Environmental Assessment Act — and downgraded the importance of science.

In the year since the election of the Liberal government, scientists have been encouraged by Trudeau’s promises of science-based decisions and openness, but there are continuing problems with processes and transparency, they say.

“We are concerned that current environmental assessments and regulatory decision-making processes lack scientific rigour, with significant consequences for the health and environment of all Canadians,” the letter says.

“Hundreds of scholars have decried weak Canadian environmental assessments and regulatory reviews and cautioned about the risks involved in large scale energy projects,” the letter says, pointing to tragedies such as the collapse of the mine tailings pond dam at Mount Polley.

Caroline Fox, a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University and co-author of the letter, said cumulative effects, including climate change, need to be considered when projects are under scrutiny.

It was one of the elements lacking during consideration of both the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipelines.

Other big questions are how regulators should reassess risks to respond to changing information and the best way of addressing gaps in knowledge that make it difficult to assess potential risks

Too often a proponent who cannot find information uses that gap to imply there is no risk, Jacob said.

“That’s a big problem.”

Five key recommendations from the researchers are:

1) Use the best available evidence “collected and interpreted without influence from those who stand to gain or lose from the conclusions.” In cases where there are knowledge gaps, information should be sought rather than conclusions drawn from limited information and decisions should be adapted if strong, new evidence is put forward.

2) All information from environmental assessments should be publicly available, including raw data. Ideally, such information should be collected in a free, searchable federal registry so conclusions can be verified and data can serve as a benchmark for future studies.

3) Cumulative environmental effects from past, present and future projects and activities should be considered, including global level effects where appropriate.

4) Prevent conflicts of interest by requiring public disclosure as “greater transparency will elevate public trust that decisions are based on evidence, knowledge and values.”

5) Develop explicit decision-making criteria and provide a full, transparent rationale of factors considered including risks weighed and alternatives considered. Trade-offs should be thoroughly and openly explained.

Fox and Jacob plan to make presentations to the panels looking at revamping legislation and hope that they can have in-person meetings with Trudeau or his ministers to emphasize the importance of science.

“We are passionate about using our scientific knowledge and training to serve the public good,” says the letter.

Image: Mount Polley tailings dam collapse.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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