Question: Who wants to know about oil spills?

Question: Who wants to know about oil spills?

Answer:  No one who doesn’t ask.

Here’s a little story from the CBC about their efforts to access information on a not so little pipeline explosion. In response, the National Energy Board disclosed an incident report that the article implies was altered in response to CBC’s request. The characters in this story provide some increasingly familiar views. The policy expert notes that this evidence of TransCanada’s track record was not available during the Keystone XL Pipeline review. The Aboriginal informant claims that what’s happening in the northern bush is out of sight, out of mind.

Here’s a similar story under Alberta law: Global Forest Watch requests mass disclosure of oil sand incident reports that must be made available by law. (see Environmental Incidents in Northeastern Alberta’s Bitumen Sands Region, 1996-2012). The exception to disclosure is where incidents are under investigation.  The allegation is that such incidents were not returned to the database after investigations closed, meaning that the worst spills were not disclosed.

So . . . Canada and Alberta share dismal grades for access to information . . . but mostly when graded by “public interest” information seekers. Here’s a contrast: Alberta Views provides great coverage of the scathing view, and it transcends environmental concerns. Our article in the Wildlands Advocate is more tempered given that more environmental information is legally available than ever before.  Note that neither the CBC nor the Forest Watch case involved legal denial of information. They highlight the more practical issue of information delivery.

Perhaps “Out of sight out of mind” applies to Information Seekers too. The allegation that the public is clamoring for information that governments and corporations want to conceal is based on experience but it’s hard to substantiate with numbers.  Most requests for information on spills and contamination come from private interests like other companies or real estate buyers doing their due diligence. A million people can read a newspaper or belong to an environmental group, but there’s still only one information request.  If everyone who follows CBC or Global Forest Watch filed separate requests, the most efficient use of public money might dictate that these incident reports  be posted online.

It’s completely fair for normal people with busy lives to rely on public interest watchdogs to do the heavy lifting. Just don’t expect information sharing to improve this way. We’ll have access rights based on public values but delivery systems catering to unrelated private concerns.

Things could even get worse if the 2013 review of the Alberta FOIP Act is any indication. The review is finished, and its focus – to provide “the right information to the right person for the right purpose” – couldn’t be farther from public interest disclosure. It shouldn’t matter who wants the information or what they will do with it, but they do need to ask for it.

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