Thursday, September 02, 2010

Science Around Athabasca River Toxins Raises Questions.

I have been following the commentary and mainstream media reports on the issues around the recent release of a scientific study about amount and source of toxins in parts of the Athabasca River.  For those of you not in the loop the context is a concern about the levels, concentrations and source of certain toxins in portions of that river.   The other concern is the differences of opinion between Dr. David Schindler’s study and the 
Alberta government’s claims from their own studies on the river system.

There are a number of serious concerns that focus on the environmental impacts of the oil sand development including  the responsibility to do ecological monitoring and the integrity of those processes, the various findings and the implications of any results...just to name a few.  Problem is we don’t see public disclosure of all the data and don’t really know all about what is actually being monitored.

A media based yelling match between scientists over the integrity of their respective data is not helpful. The sniping between environmentalist and government is tedious at best.  The sense that industry is turning a blind eye on these matters to ensure investment returns continue unabated is not helpful.  It is not just damaging to any useful public understanding of what is really happening.  This is harmful to the overarching need to ensure develop the oil sands in a prosperous, responsible and sustainable way.

All of these unhelpful and harmful things have been happening around the recent comments and rhetoric about Athabasca River toxin levels, concentrations sources and implications. The public knows there is a need for an adult conversation about all of this, and lead by some adult in authority.  The first indication of any adult-based governance leadership I have seen comes from Premier Stelmach.  He advisedly stayed silent on the early contributions to the controversy.  His first utterances have been solid and sound in asking for the university and government scientist to get together and compare data and methodologies and to help us get to the truth of toxins in this river system.  Truth in science is always a proto-truth.  It is true until disproven by a better truth.  Nothing is absolute and progress is marked by new science supplanting previous “truth.”  So don’t get all absolutist on the science – it is not the nature of science.

As a citizen of Alberta and an owner of the oil sands, I want to know the facts about what is happening in the Athabasca River system.  I want to know what my government, as my ownership proxy holder, is doing to steward this resource development.  I what to know what the oil sands industry, as my tenants, are doing to responsibly generate the wealth of the resource and protecting the environment and habitat at the same time.    

What are these two agents of the public interest doing together to make sound and accountable decisions about the long-term responsible development of my resource?  I want reliable authoritative independent assurance that my oil sands are being developed based on the best evidence-based science available...and that the search for the best science is an on-going operational principle for all those involved. 

As a result, my review of the river toxins controversy is in a governance context more than a political or through a science lens.  I see the politics being played out in ways that dismays me.  It is more about positioning messages and preserving power than seeking sound policy or stewardship approaches.  Due to such contemptible political posturing we have a serious democratic deficit in Alberta.  Couple that with an adversarial/advocacy system that is more about an absurd theatre of false choices instead of thoughtfully designed and effective presented policy options we fail to see how or governance model is helping to move us forward.

I can’t comment on the science involved or the reporting of it because I don’t know enough about it.  However, like Premier Stelmach, I also want to know what is happening t the health of the Athabasca River.  I want to understand what is happening and have the implications of what is happening clearly explained to me.   Equally important I want to be able to trust the integrity of the experts and the policy makers who make important decisions on my behalf as a citizen, presumably based on the advice of the experts and their advisers.

So instead of adding to the heat around the water issues (and others) in the Athabasca River, I hope to focus some light around the importance of getting  to the bottom of the toxin levels, sources and concentrations – and right now.  I think we citizens need to put the scientists, the environmentalists, the politicians, the industry leaders to a values test around everything they do in oil sand development. 

Some recent research my firm has just done about Albertan values.  It shows that we feel there are certain values that need to dominate public policy and politics in Alberta.  They are Integrity, Honesty, Accountability, Transparency, Fiscal Responsibility and Environmental Stewardship.  We also have to apply those values to ourselves along with Personal Responsibility as we assess the information we get and how we come to judge our policy makers and their decisions.

I want my comfort level about this and other issues relating to oil sands development to be elevated too.  I want to be assured that the oil sands are being developed in the best way possible to realize the inherent prosperity, protect the environment and improve the quality of living in the province.    I am not satisfied with an old and outdated insurance approach to the administration of oil sands development.   We seem to be offered that with the current government monitoring of the river system. 

As I understand it, the industry pays for the water monitoring in the Athabasca River.  The government contracts out the ecological monitoring but I don’t know who does the work and even if they do it using the best science available or on some other terms they are told to use?  I also don’t get to see the monitoring results because the government does not disclose them. 

Ironically any oil sands monitoring done by industry is disclosed but my information is my government does not publicly disclose results of their monitoring.  Why is that?  If there is a problem and damage is done to the environment somebody will “pay” by writing a cheque for a fine or with their job.  But it is always after the fact when the damage has been done. Not good enough in this situation.

The conservative anti-intellectual attitude of the old Klein government made sure we were ill-advised, under-informed and kept ignorant about implications of the complex consequences of oil sands activity.  As long as the money kept rolling in Albertans were supposed to be satisfied.  And to our collective discredit as citizens, we bought into that mentality for the most part.  Those of us who didn't buy-in turned off and settled for indifference and disillusionment instead of standing up and calling for a different political culture.  We disengaged and left the political playing field to right-wing partisans who by and large seem to determine the public policy direction for the province these days. 

If I wanted a preventative approach to oil sands development I would we settle for an ensurance approach.  Here we get “best practices” as an operational model but we tend to not impose those best practices very stringently on the existing operations.  In fact if we “grandfather” these best practices on existing projects we get old problems persisting.  We don’t clean up for past sins unless there is a major crisis and then we react with investigations and task forces and commissions in order to make new rules, regulations, policies and laws. Again after the fact of some form of systemic failure.

The new policy, we always get told, is stronger so that people cannot easily take their legal responsibilities for granted.  But we tend to under fund any inspection, monitoring or enforcement to save money instead of really ensuring performance.  Corporate Social Responsibility efforts came into vogue by industry to show that they are the good guys who "get it.” They tend to respond to the standards set for them as part of the gaining public trust and present it in the form of marketing materials under rubrics like supporting the brand promise of the company.    All well and good but is it good enough?

We don’t really take on the tougher task of asking ourselves what ought to be the fundamental principles that direct our longer term policies for oil sands development.  We want people to believe we have done enough to ensure the oil sand development purposes are being served. Namely attracting investment, turning out projects as fast as can be and creating high paying jobs.  We can leave the ecological concerns for another time.  There is an absence of balance and an integrated thinking about oil sands development.

The intent is generally good too but the execution is too often less than rigorous.  The culture around ensuring the public is on-side tends to be PR, advertising and slogans.  Breaches too often get unreported or under reported.  When they become public there are efforts to bury the facts under privacy legislation or deferrals because “the matter is before the courts.”  So the public is no better off in assessing what is really going on and if what is happening even aligns with the societal values they want applied to the development of their oil sands resources.

The next level of stewardship performance is assurance.  This is a higher level that is akin to a moral obligation because it is principles based and in the form of a covenant with the public by government and industry.  It does not replace the other levels but builds on them.  It is an effort to show that everything that can be done to prevent, avoid, mitigate and remediate any possible and potential negative consequences of oil sands development is being done - and done well.  

Here integrity is more than doing what you say in ways consistent with the outcomes you expect.  Here integrity is about a wholeness sense of accountability and transparency.  It is about actually integrating all the vital information about a development or policy decision from a social, political, environmental and economic perspective.  Making all the integrated information public in an honest, accessible and transparent way shows that values trade offs have to be made in such complex decisions.  

Deciding what values get traded off and how that is decided is as important as anything else for politicians, project promoter and operators to decide.  To do it with integrity, honestly with transparency that shows accountability actually earns and sustains the public’s trust.  The industry needs this public trust from Albertans as owners of the oil sands to justify its continuing social license to operate.  The politicians need the public’s trust to justify their continuation of Albertan’s consent to govern.
The assurance inter-play between the public as owners, the government as proxy and industry as tenant becomes more collaborative instead of command and control.  Accountability is shared instead of traditional top down decisions directed by "higher" authority alone.  Decisions become principle based assurances not just minimalist adherence to the inadequate rules.

Once the approach to assure the public and the public interest is understood by government and industry then a new systems approach to politics and prosperity can be developed.  That systems approach would be based on ways to achieve sustainable prosperity, with a high quality of living in an enriched biodiversity context.  Conservation and preservation will help define progress in a longer term context than the next quarterly profit levels.  Government and industry decisions would look for ways that respect and harmonize with the ecosystem rather than trying to constantly engineer our way out of our environmental responsibilities.

So I hope to see the university and government scientists get together over the Athabasca River toxins and compare processes, data, findings and interpretations, just as Premier Stelmach wants.  I hope they share and learn from each other and tell Albertans what is going on regarding ecological monitoring, habitat protection for fish and wildlife, the human health implications of their findings if any. 

I hope we see recommendations about what needs to be done differently and better about oil sands ecological monitoring to assure the public interest is being served.   I hope all the government and industry ecological monitoring data on the oil sands is fully disclosed and any professional differences of opinion are explained to me in ways I can understand.  Expert opinions differ all the time and Albertans have to learn to accept that.

I hope the politicians cool the rhetoric, gamesmanship and partisanship around the development of the oil sands.  I hope the ENGOs refrain from publicity stunts and inaccurate hyperbole just to get media attention.  I hope the scientific community start to spend time more time to educate the public about what is needed to be done to provide a more integrated and whole-systems approach to oil sands development. 

Albertans are being told that the oil sand development is a drop in the bucket of the world-wide CO2 emissions.  That is true.  However, it is also true that on a per capita basis we Albertans are the largest emitters of CO2 on the planet.  We own the oil sands so, as citizens, we should be getting the benefits.  But we should also bear the burden of developing the oil sands.  That means individual Albertans have to take the enormous development opportunity and profound obligations of oil sands development personally and seriously.

We Albertans can’t just delegate or worse yet, abdicate our greater duty of care to ensure and assure that the oil sands are developed in the most effective and integrated way possible.  As owners we Albertans owe a duty to the environment and to future generations when it comes to how our oil sands are developed.  If we Albertans want better leadership and stewardship of our oil sands we have to look in the mirror first and be sure we are doing our part and taking our responsibilities seriously.  Then we have to convey our concerns and expectations to our politicians and our industry tenants about what to do and how to do it - all in our good name as Albertans.  Otherwise we will have nobody but ourselves to blame.

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