Pipeline pratttle

This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 10: Here’s a job you don’t want: The federal Joint Review Panel began 18 months of hearings today on the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline to carry oil from Bruderheim, AB to Kitimat, BC. Talk about mind-crushing boredom combined with blazing political controversy then dunked in total irrelevance.

See? You’re bored already. But I’m plunging ahead because North American energy security matters and so does bogus participatory democracy.

Start with the boredom. The panel’s original schedule for hearings has already been extended by a year because over 4500 people want to yap, though the panel “does not expect oral statements to be longer than 10 minutes” (good luck with that mate). It’s too late to register for those, by the way. But don’t worry. The usual suspects heard of them in plenty of time to grab a spot at the mike. But what for? What can anyone say in 10 minutes that will sway the panel? Especially the 4,500th person, filling the 45,000th minute?

After hearing all this chatter and being bothered at length by “Intervenors” (too late to register for that too, but you can still write by March 13 and they promise “Panel members will read and consider all letters of comment” although they may consider them ridiculous), any members who have not expired from boredom and frustration will make a recommendation complete, if positive, with conditions that may number in the hundreds (the Mackenzie Valley pipeline approval had 264). That recommendation will then go to the Minister of the Environment and, once the government has responded, the panel will make a final decision. After which someone will sue.

This process stinks. There’s been a considerable ruckus, including on this network, over the fact that foreigners are giving money to pipeline opponents. But that one doesn’t bother me at all. Since I have worked for several Canadian think tanks that received at least some money from foreign foundations I would be hypocritical to take the opposite view. But it never bothered me then, and doesn’t now, because intelligent thought about policy issues doesn’t stop at national borders nor, often, does the practical impact of decisions governments make. Including environmental ones.

Lots of people believe, wrongly in my view, that this pipeline and the associated oil tanker traffic would harm ecosystems including international ones. But I welcome their trying to help the Canadian government get the best information it possibly can. If it turns out the pipeline would be a mistake I’d be grateful to anyone who helps us avoid blundering, especially at their own expense. And given the crushing boredom of hearing thousands of people stammer and rave their way through the same talking points, I welcome anyone who might help supporters or opponents of the project speak clearly, to the point and briefly.

I also note that Canadians, like everyone else, give Americans endless pointed advice on the environment, defence and every other topic under the sun. And while Americans don’t have to listen, they often hear something good if they do. Like Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard address warning them against socialism and a failure of nerve and blasting the peace movement for abandoning Indochina.

So all means slick up the presentations. But could somebody then cut them short? What really gets me about this process is the false participatory sheen. As the panel acidly notes, their decision “will be made on the content of the information it receivers and not on the number of individuals that relay the same message…. Repeating similar views a number of times does not provide the Panel with useful information.”

So why let so many people do it? Especially given scathing commentary about President Barack Obama deferring a decision on the KeystoneXL pipeline until after the coming election. And given that the Northern Gateway question probably won’t be settled by what’s said in the hearings at all.

The way we actually make decisions, and it is participatory if not perfectly so, is through elections. But you can bet the government will point to the hearings as proof of an “open” process and to dodge the dreaded charge of “elitism” that results if you just win an election and then govern, that is, make decisions not everyone likes.

So: Foreign money? Bring it on. Endless gabbing? Shut it off. Panel members? Stock up on coffee ... and aspirin.

UncategorizedJohn Robson