Energy and The Environment

Energy-related projects encounter various kinds of resistance.

At the outset there are activists. Some of them are environmentalists who examine each new proposal for its long term impact on the community where it will be located, the broader region, and the planet.

They can play a valuable role in arguing for a full examination of environmental impacts before a project is too far advanced. A problem for environmentalists is the sheer number and diversity of organizations.

Virtually every form of energy resource development has opposition. Coal is dirty. It as well as oil and gas contribute to greenhouse gases. Fracking might hurt air or water quality. Wind farms are noisy and unsightly, and kill birds. Solar energy installations can consume vast acreages of farmland. Hydro dams drown forests, damage habitat for fish species, and promote siltation.

The average citizen does not make a clear distinction between the various kinds of environmentalist, so they are often viewed as collectively opposed to everything when many have more nuanced positions.

The second kind of activist is someone likely to be immediately impacted by the proposed development. They worry about noise from a wind turbine, dust from a coal mine, or damage to their well water from fracking. They may not have had much involvement with environmentalism beforehand, and may not have a continuing interest after their issue has been addressed. Without taking anything away from the legitimacy of their complaints it is fair to categorize them as NIMBY’s. (Not In My Backyard).

Environmentalists, together with the NIMBY’s for any particular project, only represent a small proportion of the population. Unless the project is in contravention of existing laws or regulations they can only provide effective opposition if they are able to recruit a broader base of support.

One favourite tactic is to find scientific papers that support their position. As observed in a recent article in The Economist these are rather less authoritative than might be imagined: “Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis… The hallowed process of peer review is not all it is cracked up to be, either. When a prominent medical journal ran research past other experts in the field, it found that most of the reviewers failed to spot mistakes it had deliberately inserted into papers, even after being told they were being tested.” Of course the use of similar tactics by industry to defend its position suffers from the same flaws.

This is not to say that researchers should be ignored, but neither should their findings be treated as absolute truth.

Another tactic is to hold demonstrations, especially ones that can attract television cameras. Hence the various stunts by Greenpeace, or the heavy coverage provided to the recent aboriginal protests in New Brunswick.

Sometimes these are an effective way to tell politicians to pay attention. Sometimes it is obvious that the protesters are more noisy than numerous.

More recently advocacy groups have been making effective use of social media as a way of informing and engaging others, especially young people.

When a broader group of citizens takes interest in a cause, such as has happened with global warming, public policy begins to be affected. The direction of opinion is rarely tightly focused so government feels its way forward.

The case of fracking is an example. It is interesting to note that the only places having serious resistance to the technology are those that have little or no experience with it. It is legal and widely practiced in Canada’s four western provinces. None of the governments or competitive opposition parties proposes to eliminate it. Their focus is on improving regulations as they learn from experience.

In Nova Scotia’s case the previous government kicked the can down the road on Aug 28 of this year by commissioning yet another review. It is led by David Wheeler, the new President of Cape Breton University, and managed by its Verschuren Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment.

It should be emphasized that this kind of relevant contribution from our University sector is a most welcome use of its research capabilities.

But it is somewhat troubling that there is no mandate other than the press release: “…Mr. Wheeler will consult with interested parties and technical experts on the social, economic, and environmental and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing.”

So Mr. Wheeler will make his own choice of what panellists and experts to include, and what questions the report should answer. For example asking whether there is any risk leads in a much different direction than asking whether there is manageable risk. It will be difficult for Mr. Wheeler to choose questions without reflecting his own bias.

Energy Minister Younger should provide guidance on the questions which Mr. Wheeler’s panel will address. Doing so would take nothing away from the panel’s independence.

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