The basic environmental insight is this: all life is dependent on the healthy functioning of natural systems. To risk the viability of land, water, or atmospheric systems is to risk life itself. From this point of view, we live in precarious times – climate change is becoming more severe, the habitat which supports bio-diversity is disappearing and in many parts of the world, including southern Alberta, water resources are under serious threat. Proceeding with business as usual will take us further into precariousness and outright danger.
So what do we do? How do we institutionalize this insight? While true, it’s not very useful to say “it’s complicated.” But one change is both key and doable: before governments approve any new development that could damage people or the environment, those who propose and stand to benefit from that development should have to prove the impact of what they propose is not harmful. In other words, we have to apply the well-known precautionary principle. The imposition of a requirement on those who would take an action – for example, apply a new technology to producing in the oilsands – to convince us that their proposal is safe is really nothing more than a codification of common sense maxims such as “look before you leap” or “better safe than sorry.” Some jurisdictions outside Canada have made the principle legally binding and it has even been given legal support by the Supreme Court of Canada, an institution that has been very slow to affirm other international law principles.
But nevertheless, the recklessness goes on. For example, some have suggested that a solution to global warming can be found in “geo-engineering” techniques like spraying reflective aerosols, such as stratospheric sulfur aerosols or aluminum oxide particles, into the stratosphere to deflect solar radiation. The chances that there would not be damaging, unintended consequences of such an action are so low as to be laughable. Apply the precautionary principle and the conclusion is inescapable – no way. Such a move is on its face ridiculous, not because there is no possibility it could be safe but because the odds are far too high it would make matters worse.
For an example that’s less dramatic but much closer to home: hydraulic fracturing, particularly of shale formations, has been undertaken in Alberta in flagrant violation of the precautionary principle. As of last year, the executive manager of the Regulatory Development Branch of the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) knew of no toxic fluids “that are prohibited” in the province. But a 2011 US Congress report disclosed that fracking fluids can include coffee grounds, salt, ceramic balls, walnut hulls, lead, petroleum distillates, methanol, benzene, toluene, xylene and diesel fuel. In other words, Alberta’s regulators have allowed virtually any substance to be injected into the ground without even knowing, letting alone evaluating the safety of, the substances used. It’s tragic but typical that they are only now getting around to thinking about the problem.
Acting in the name of Albertans – you and me – the provincial government has got things exactly backwards. It approves first and asks the tough questions, if at all, only later. You can’t prove the existence of a negative – that there’s no chance at all that things could go wrong – but you can insist that those who want our approval to take action have to prove to a high standard of certainty that by taking that step the human condition will be improved not worsened.
Make no mistake: the issues are political, for to make this kind of change to our approach to regulation is make a political change. The record of Alberta governments through the entire history of oil and gas development in the province has been inadequate. It has always been drill, frack, pipe, dig – whatever – first, and just maybe worry about consequences later. Contrary to the stories that we have told ourselves all these years, decision-making on proposed developments was never good enough. (That Alberta does a better job than say Nigeria, while true, is pathetic and damns with faint praise.)
But yesterday was then, this is now, when the stakes are higher because the environmental situation we are in is much more precarious.
We need a fresh start with a fresh government, one not wedded to making excuses for the environmental deficiencies of the past and present. We need a government that can put better thinking into immediate action and take Albertans into a more hopeful, honourable and safe future.