RSC Report: Science, regulation and the precautionary principle

RSC Report: Science, regulation and the precautionary principle

By Laura Bowman and Jason Unger

Earlier this week the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) released a lengthy report on the state of oilsands science and regulation in Alberta.  The report rightly notes the lack of data on such important issues as water quality, air quality, reclamation, cancer rates, and a variety of other issues.  From this, it draws conclusions about the state of the environmental impact of the oilsands and its regulation.

What is happening in the oilsands is this: opponents are continually putting forward the basis for establishing risks, and trying to get regulators to use precaution.  Proponents are pointing out scientific uncertainty about those same risks.  Scientific uncertainty is maintained by various policies regarding monitoring, assessment, and limited public access to information and regulatory processes.  Regulators often rely on uncertainties to justify authorizations and place the onus on the public or critics to prove harm.

Unfortunately, the 414 page RSC report fails to mention principles of environmental regulation such as the precautionary principle.  The precautionary principle provides:

If there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.

The principle is triggered when there is scientific uncertainty about an environmental or health risk, but an objective basis for belief in the existence of a serious, irreversible risk.  Approaches to the precautionary principle vary in terms of the evidence required to determine when there is an objective basis.  While there are scientific aspects to this question, there are also subjective aspects, like evaluating seriousness of the risk, (i.e. risk perception) that involve value judgments and questions that are open to public debate.   The principle generally creates an onus on a proponent of a development to show that the risk is not serious or irreversible and/or that there are no better alternatives.

While the RSC report makes numerous important points about the nature and degree of uncertainty involved in the oilsands, it really adds little to the debate about whether regulation should be precautionary.  Instead, like good scientists, the RSC is telling us what we do and do not know in clear terms.

How you respond to this depends on how you respond to scientific uncertainty more generally.   Unfortunately, the RSC’s approach is for the most part anti-precautionary.  On several fronts, the RSC asserts that various claims about the oilsands are not proven, which may lead people (and government decision-makers) to imply they are wrong.  These assertions rely heavily on uncertainty.   The RSC report also favours scientific evidence of risk, and industry evaluations of the importance of risk over cultural views about the significance of risk.

If accepted, this approach will facilitate continued politicization of the regulatory process as Government will be able to hang its hat on a “lack of evidence” of impacts to support approvals.  Cynically, one might observe that herein lies a historic incentive to minimize oversight on both the provincial and federal levels, an issue identified by the RSC.

To its credit, the RSC does put much of the onus back on proponents and regulators by suggesting improvements to assessment, monitoring, and regulatory processes.  It also essentially identifies the work of Kelly and Schindler as establishing an objective basis for the existence of some types of risk in the oilsands.  To this extent there are precautionary elements to the RSC’s paper.  Unfortunately for oilsands critics, the RSC’s approach requires a high level of scientific proof for asserting risk, rather than simply an objective basis.  How the public will provide this proof in the face of scientific uncertainty is unclear.

While this is good scientific practice, the RSC fails to fully appreciate that regulation does not have the same objectives as science.  Regulatory decisions must be made in the public interest, even when there is extensive scientific uncertainty.  Those concerned about oilsands must put forward their case on the nature of the risks using the best information that is currently available.  Where that information is minimal, the RSC’s standards leave little room for public participation by implying that inferences about risk, without proof, have no place in the oilsands debate.

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