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Jeffrey Simpson: Resource development: Stuck at a yellow light

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.

The Globe and Mail

Canada has become a country of yellow lights, with project after project delayed by governments, courts, aboriginal groups and non-governmental organizations.

No longer does the country have the capacity to make decisions about major projects that cause the slightest controversy. No matter what scientific review or regulatory process is put in place to examine projects, its credibility is attacked from the get-go by those who oppose the projects, full stop.

We have now entered a period where proponents of anything might ask: Why bother spending heaps of time and money on the review or regulatory process when governments aren't going to pay any attention but rather make decisions based on politics?

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The Trudeau government typified this approach when it added questions for the National Energy Board to examine in reviewing the extension of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia and the proposed Energy East pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick.

Within moments of announcing the new criteria, government ministers said that, at the end of the day, they would be making a "political" decision. Who knows what will go into that "political" decision, but chances are it won't be the scientific evidence or expertise of the regulatory body.

One of those ministers, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, recently illustrated the pause-button reflex on the idea of burying of low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste about 680 metres underground near Ontario Power Generation's Bruce nuclear site on Lake Huron. Ontario Power Generation correctly argued that in the opinion of scientists deep storage was safer than above-ground storage of the kind OPG has been using.

In one form or another, this issue has been debated for almost 15 years. A joint review panel of scientific experts pondered the issue from 2005 to 2009. Another panel was struck in 2012. It recommended approval in May, 2015.

Predictably, within days, a local community group went to court. Predictably, too, although extremely long consultations had been held with aboriginal groups, especially the Saugeen First Nation, they refused consent. And, predictably, those in the area who oppose the idea of burying nuclear waste at all dismissed the review panel's finding that it was safe to do so, mobilized even more intensely than before, and got 90,000 names on a petition. Municipalities from far away sent in petitions of protest, as did U.S. municipalities on the Great Lakes and politicians from these areas.

So Ms. McKenna pushed the pause button, instructing the OPG to study other sites, a process that will probably take a very long time. In essence, the Environment Minister was saying she did not have confidence in the review panel, OPG and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Agency.

What if OPG were to suggest another site? That suggestion would require years of study by a review panel. Suppose the proposed new site – let's say one in hard-rock Northern Ontario – requires the transport of low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste by train through or near towns and cities. Suppose the proposed site is on what aboriginal people claim to be their "unceded" territory, whatever that means.

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Does anyone think this alternative, even if studied and approved by certified experts, would be greeted with anything other than rampant NIMBYism, aboriginal outrage, environmentalists' condemnation and a dismissal of the considered judgment of scientific experts?

Even when governments try to streamline procedures, courts get in the way – as in British Columbia, where a judge recently ruled that the provincial government should not have signed an equivalency agreement with the federal government allowing Ottawa to review the Northern Gateway pipeline.

The learned judge was essentially saying the federal government could not be trusted to review the project, so apparently from now on both governments have to do their own assessments – great news for opponents who can play one review off against the other and, even if they lose both reviews, can and will appeal a decision they do not like to the courts.

These are just two of many examples of the yellow-light syndrome, very popular in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Ottawa, which manifests itself around mines, dams and hydro transmission lines, nuclear waste, roads, pipelines, forest-cutting, fracking and seismic testing. It is defined by the triumph of politics and political pressure over evidence-based reviews that are denounced before they begin, and excoriated when they finish, by those who understand that politicians are much more receptive to the vagaries of public opinion than expert advice and whose decisions, if and when they are ever made, can always be contested in the courts.

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