Green Web Bulletin #62

Environmental Hearings and Existential Dilemmas:
The Sable Gas Project

                                                                                         By David Orton

    This Bulletin deals with the general problem or existential dilemma, of whether or not radical ecocentric activists should or should not participate in formal environmental assessment hearings. Are such hearings useful for activists in stopping Earth-destroying "development" projects from proceeding, or are they useless? This Bulletin also explains and justifies why the Green Web and the Nova Scotia Anti-Pipeline Group boycotted the now concluded formal hearings of the Joint Public Review Panel on the Sable gas project. This Bulletin is the latest one in a series of nine Bulletins by the Green Web on natural gas, gas pipelines and the Sable gas project.

Postponing Exploitation
    It seems to be quite rare to find a "development" project that has been outright rejected. Thomas Berger's 1977 report Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland, which came out of the hearings he held on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, recommended that no pipeline be built across the northern Yukon and that a pipeline in the Mackenzie Valley be postponed for ten years in order to settle native land claims. Also, I have two reports from the National Energy Board (NEB): GH-4-93, April 1994 "InterCoastal Pipe Line Inc. and Inter-provincial Pipe Line Inc."; and GH-4-90, April 1991, "TransCanada PipeLines Limited", which both denied permission to go ahead with energy projects. Yet these are very much exceptions to the general rule. I have been unable to find out from the NEB despite written inquiry, what percentage of corporate applications for energy projects have been rejected by the Board after hearings.

Reality Check
    I have gone through back issues of The Wildlands Advocate, the journal of the Alberta Wilderness Association, and the BC Environmental Report. Both of these publications have had many articles by oil and gas environmental activists. These articles collectively show how NEB so-called environmental hearings, end up ruling for the energy corporations - and against environmental, wildlife, and social justice interests.

    The NEB shares the world view of the oil and gas industry. There is no longer a "national" self-sufficiency energy policy for Canada. Energy exports and contributing to global warming, do not seem to be connected for the Board. In 1987, the NEB put export and domestic customers on an equal footing. Canada now exports over 50 percent of the crude oil and natural gas it produces to the United States. Yet this country, which has less than 5 per cent of the world's peoples, is responsible for more than 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Because of the Free Trade Agreement, Canada is now locked into supplying to the United States.

Sable Gas Project
    Since June of 1996 here in Nova Scotia, a focus of mine has been opposing the Sable gas project. I am now in the process of winding down from this involvement. Assessing the role of the NEB has been important, as this was the lead regulatory agency for the Sable project. This project included an extended "formal" 56-day hearing held in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

    The energy corporations involved in the Sable Offshore Energy Project (Mobil Oil, Shell and Imperial Oil), and in the companion Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline Project (Westcoast Energy, Duke Energy and Mobil Oil), have been given the 'regulatory' go-ahead for pumping natural gas to mainly an American market. The NEB, in December 1997 after federal cabinet approval, issued a misleadingly called "Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity". Another defeat for our side. But what did we learn along the way?

    I believe that what attitude to take towards environmental hearings, is a major concern for radical environmentalists. To participate or not to participate is the question. John Livingston in his 1981 book The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation, spoke of environmental impact assessment as "a grandiloquent fraud, a hoax, and a con". He pointed out how, "Ecology is thus used as a tool to permit 'developers' to continue to do what they have always done." Livingston said, we now minimize environmental impact to a so-called acceptable level.

    We know that industrial capitalist society needs its continuing "fix" of fossil fuels. Therefore more and more of wild Nature must be brought into production. What we are talking about is how to most effectively fight the Earth destroyers. Committed activists can of course disagree on such matters. Nevertheless, I would like to share with others what I have learnt.

    In this particular struggle I worked in two groups, the Green Web, an environmental research group of which I am the coordinator, and in the rural-based Nova Scotia Anti-Pipeline Group. Both these organizations boycotted and publicly condemned the formal hearings (government funding was available), although both took part in the informal so-called "scoping" sessions. To my knowledge we were the only environmental organizations which rejected participating in the formal environmental hearings. Mainstream environmental organizations such as the Ecology Action Centre, the NB Conservation Council and the World Wildlife Fund, took part in the formal hearings. Over 120 individuals, corporations, governments or government departments and assorted organizations were given intervenor status. It was said by one newspaper reporter covering this story that, on any one day of the formal hearings organized by the Joint Public Review Panel for the Sable gas project, there were about 65 lawyers present!

Limitations of the Gas Panel
    On October 4, 1996, several months before the formal hearings for the Sable gas project and the onshore pipelines started, the Anti-Pipeline Group put out a press release called "Limitations Of the Sable Gas Panel". The release asked for five changes, which we considered 'deficiencies' in the work of the Panel. These changes are summarized below:

    1. The five-member Joint Review Panel (three of whom were NEB members) were of course appointed from on high, no doubt with close oil and gas industry consultation. Who the "judges" are becomes crucial in deciding whether or not the Sable gas project was to be given the go-ahead. So our press release asked that,
    All members of the Joint Public Review Panel need to have legitimacy for the people
    of Nova Scotia. This means members of the panel must have past records of defending
    the environment, speaking out for social justice, and defending the public's interests -
    including their economic interests. Members must demonstrate that they are not
    beholden to the oil and gas industry in any way.

    2. The past environmental record of the major corporate proponents of this natural gas project must be part of the mandate of the Public Review.... Environmentalists in the West familiar with the oil and gas industry, have also noted the consistent bias of the National Energy Board towards this industry in public hearings, like those being undertaken in Nova Scotia.

    3. Eliminate the existing rules of procedure (See National Energy Board Information Bulletin IV,  "How to Participate in a Public Hearing"), because these rules are intimidating, complex, and designed to exclude citizen participation in favour of lawyers and professional lobbyists for the oil and gas industry.

    4. We disagreed with the separation in the deliberations of the Panel, of the overland pipeline from the marine component. For us it was a non-wholistic viewpoint. This was eventually conceded by the Panel, as it fitted into their "speed up the process" orientation.

    5. We said the project ethics for the corporations pushing the Sable gas project were only defined from a business perspective. We asked for a deeper ecological perspective which would include how to reduce our industrial impact upon the Earth. Also, why should more natural gas be extracted given the reality of global warming? We also noted under this fifth point,
    The construction disturbances for the wells and pipelines and onshore processing
    plants, the inevitable pipeline leaks, breakages, well blow outs, release of toxic drilling
    muds from the 30 wells promised, human errors, etc. will impact severely upon marine
    mammals, the fishery, sea birds, the aquaculture industry, eco-tourism, etc. and the
    overall quality of life on the Eastern Shore....

Looking back
    I think it was a good decision for the Green Web and the Nova Scotia Anti-Pipeline Group not to participate in the highly structured formal hearings orchestrated by the Joint Public Review Panel. But the contradiction was that we did become more removed from any public discussion in Nova Scotia as a consequence of this. To have "legitimacy", even if this meant ultimate irrelevancy, was to partake in the formal hearings.

    As with any major environmental issue, without mass involvement the Earth destroyers will have their way. We shall see whether or not this changes. How does one bring about public involvement in a real way instead of a token participation? Formal environmental hearings are about token 'public' participation.

    More than 4,000 landowners in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the pipeline corridor, are faced with the actual laying of the high pressure main pipeline. It is 36 inches in diameter and designed to operate under a pressure of 1,440 lbs per square inch. A thinner walled pipe is used in rural areas, and there are no required set-back zones from peoples' houses, in case of explosions. There will be forced selling of land for the pipeline right of way, but there will also be land expropriations. Anyone's living space can be ruined or destroyed in the name of "development".

    All the media was plugged into "booster" mode for the Sable gas project. There was no attempt to present for public discussion the kind of critique which was articulated by those in absolute opposition and what this meant. But in spite of this, there is widespread opposition on the level that it is a sell-out of Canadian interests to a handful of multi-national energy companies. Most of the "opposition" that has been expressed in the media is not basic disagreement, but sees little economic advantage. The destruction of Nature and the imposition of the pipeline on rural people are not major public issues of concern.

    It is clear that the government funding that was made available ($125,000 for the offshore component and $75,000 for the onshore component), really served to legitimate a process, the outcome of which could only be favourable to the oil and gas industry. Funded environmental groups often had their concerns ruled not worthy of consideration by the five-person Review Panel. Thus the Allergy and Environmental Health Association of NS, was told that the end use of natural gas was an indoor air quality issue that was not within the scope of the Sable gas project. (The Association unfortunately promoted in its literature the use of natural gas for electrical generation.) The NB Conservation Council had its request for an independent environmental assessment of the overland pipeline turned down. (The Council publicly stated it was "in principle", "not opposed to offshore gas development.") Some of the government funding went directly to industry groups, e.g. Seafood Producers of Nova Scotia and the Country Harbour Sea Farms Co-op. Some funding went to a government and industry funded "environmental" group, the Clean Nova Scotia Foundation.

    The massive amounts of studies and literature of the industry, essentially defined the parameters of discussion in the formal hearings. The corporate lawyers with their constant interventions were on hand to keep the discussions on track. Of course all the studies mysteriously came to the identical conclusion that this extensive project, which will extend over an industrial life of at least 25 years, will have "no significant adverse environmental or socio-economic impact". The project literature itself stated that the terms "significant" and "insignificant" provide "the foundation on which the categorization of project environmental effects is built upon". However we are informed, "these terms are not directly defined". This circular speak litters the reports. Ultimately, "significance" is in the eye of the corporate beholder.

    Once the formal hearings began the bourgeois media lost any interest in any deeper oppositional voices, or non-urban opposition. Somehow, for example, the World Wildlife Fund's position of preserving the submarine canyon called The Gully, and letting the rest of the Scotian Shelf be open to oil and gas "development," became the environmental position. Also rural environmental and safety concerns, which had been our major interest, stopped making any media coverage. The focus became overwhelmingly corporate concerns. If any environmental group had a "moment of glory" at the formal hearings, this was quickly forgotten as corporate infighting intensified.

    I also came to see that the discussion about turning the East Coast into a fossil fuel extraction zone for American society should have started in the 1960s, when oil and gas corporations first were handed permits to drill exploratory wells on the Scotian Shelf. (Apparently 121 test wells have been drilled since 1959 on the Scotian Shelf.) This did not happen. The unspoken energy corporation assumption, accepted by government 'regulatory' (that is, promotional) agencies, was that money spent on oil and gas exploration could be redeemed many times over if a commercial discovery was made. Such a commercial discovery meant the right to exploit it. Yet the non-human life forms living in that habitat have no legal standing or consideration.

    John Livingston was absolutely right when he wrote so long ago, that environmental impact assessment hearings are a fraud or hoax. Why is it taking so long for us to learn this? Why do well intentioned environmentalists still participate and by so doing convey legitimacy on this process - a process designed to facilitate the ongoing expansion of industrial capitalist society? After all, the formal hearing so-called environmental assessment process was set up by those in our society who have no interest in braking the "logic of accumulation in a finite world," as the late German green philosopher Rudolf Bahro put it. We want real alternatives to industrial expansionism and consumerism, not merely putting some brakes on.

    One mainstream high-flying environmentalist was quoted as saying about environmental assessments, "It's the only process we have." This is environmentalism on a leash. 'All we will have' translates to all we will get if we accept the existing rules of the industrial environmental game. Environmentalists who willingly partake in and promote environmental assessments may achieve name recognition. They do such good work, that they would have to be invented by the defenders of industrial capitalism, if they did not exist already.

    One is usually confronted with is a huge amount of promotional material. For example, with the Sable gas project, there were 17 volumes of material for the Sable Offshore Energy Project and the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline Project. In addition, the two "rival" corporate conglomerates had their own documentation: the overland TransMaritime Pipeline Project had 11 large binders of information, and there were 5 volumes of material from the subsea North Atlantic Pipeline Project. Not many people have the time or inclination to digest all of this company documentation. The next step, to search for alternative materials putting forth the ecological and  societal interest, is often not very fruitful. So basically no informed discussion can take place.

    The withdrawal of legitimacy for the environmental assessment process by environmentalists, would be the start of real change in the environmental movement. A society which wants to perpetuate itself, must create forums for "discussions" where the existing social paradigm of values - anthropocentrism, unlimited economic growth, etc., are not challenged. We should look at federal or provincial environmental hearings from such a perspective.

    The existing environmental assessment process does not work. For corporations the process is merely an annoying delay in getting on with business. There is no critical examination within our society of any basic issues. And the corporations with their media feeds to compliant reporters, determine the 'discussion' agenda.

    Even those who seek real sustainable alternatives can be worn down and destroyed by working within structures set up by the enemies of our Earth. We cannot continue to insulate ourselves from reality by partaking in highly structured and narrowly defined environmental assessments. To refuse to participate in environmental assessment scams such as just occurred with the Sable gas Joint Public Review Panel, means to face the question of how to really organize to change this world. On this necessary path there are no posted signs or government grants. But it is the path we must embark upon. Our souls and the Earth are calling for this change.

          December 30, 1997

(Published in the Manitoba quarterly Links Magazine, Vol. X, No. 3, Spring 1998, under the title "Hearings not for listening: The Sable gas project experience".)

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