Environmental review, a.k.a. Death-by-Delay, in Canada: public opinion and vote strategy

Robert Caro’s new book on LBJ is out. This time he covers LBJ’s transition from VP to president in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. LBJ’s priority at the time, according to Caro, was implementing one particular part of JFK’s legislative agenda: laws that would bring blacks fully into the American electoral process. According to Caro such legislation had been attempted numerous times before, only to be blocked in the senate by tacticians and strategists who were expert at the Art of Delay. As long as these senators controlled the committees that had the power to vet and move (or stall) legislative initiatives, they could ensure that bills they did not like would go nowhere. They did not like the JFK civil rights proposals, and until Johnson arrived in the Oval Office, their death-by-delay had been working.

Delay-by-delay is a favourite stratagem not just in the U.S. Senate. It is practiced by many groups in western democracies where public consultation is built into decision processes for major infrastructure projects. In some cases this is justified, in other cases not. Where it is not, delaying tactics by project opponents can be quite damaging: they can kill jobs.

In the case of nuclear plants, deliberate delays can also kill people, and even the environment itself. How? It can kill people by forcing electric utilities to use coal or gas, both of which are far more dangerous than nuclear. Google the term “natural gas explosion” and watch the results come up. Gas is an inherently dangerous substance: it is volatile and explosive. Nuclear, judging from its safety record over the last five decades, is by far the safest way to generate power. It has the lowest casualties, by far, of the major generating technologies.

Deliberate delay of nuclear projects kills the environment, by ensuring that nuclear’s only competitors in the grid electricity game—coal and gas, both of which dump gargantuan amounts of carbon dioxide into our air—grab market share from nuclear.

There are three major planned infrastructure projects in Canada that are threatened by the delaying tactics of opponents. These are the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipelines in the west, and the Darlington B nuclear project in Ontario.

The elected part of the Canadian federal government is based to a large extent in the west, and particularly Alberta. Alberta is today Canada’s economic engine, and that is because it is a huge producer of the raw material for the fuel that goes into a lot of real engines in this country. That raw material is bitumen, a sticky, sulfur- and carbon-heavy hydrocarbon that you can turn into synthetic crude oil in a number of ways, which involve putting hydrogen into the heavy stuff either through a thermal process called upgrading or by mixing it with hydrogen-rich liquid hydrocarbons like naphtha.

America is Alberta’s biggest customer for upgraded bitumen, but other countries—including and especially China—are thirsty for the stuff too. Demand for upgraded Alberta bitumen is so high that the provincial government, the oil industry, and the federal government are scrambling to build pipelines to the U.S. and to Canada’s west coast in order to get synthetic crude to market. The stakes are huge. Markets—hence jobs and enormous tax revenue—are on the line.

Pipelines cross a lot of territory and from time to time spring leaks, so there is a lot of environmental and technical assessment that goes into building them. And because the lines to the U.S. and Canada’s west coast will cover very significant tracts of territory, the environmental reviews have been lengthy and complex. There comes a time when these processes can be too lengthy and too complex. To reduce needless delays, the federal government has introduced changes in the legislation that governs environmental reviews. As of June 29 2012, there is now a strict timeline for environmental reviews: they must be complete in 24 months. That is significant: it means opponents can no longer use environmental review procedure as a delaying tactic. This has gotten a lot of media play.

How will that impact Darlington, which is the only clean project of the three mentioned above? The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has begun the process of amending its regulations to accommodate the new federal imperatives for major project reviews. This comes as the CNSC has granted a site preparation license to Ontario Power Generation to prepare the Darlington B site for the new reactors. (The Environmental Assessment took just under 24 months but the process of obtaining a license to prepare site took over 35 months from OPG’s submission of its environmental impact statement; see OPG’s Project Overview.)

The next step is for OPG to submit a construction license application. Proponents of new nuclear in Ontario—and these include anyone who wants a stable supply of clean, cheap electricity—now need to figure out how to persuade the CNSC to conduct reviews as expeditiously as those in the oil and gas industry. Bearing in mind that the new federal law was written for oil and gas, not nuclear. The industry has offered suggestions on how the CNSC can incorporate the new federal guidelines into its own licensing processes; hopefully this can be achieved.

That is the part of the process that the federal legislation cannot affect. For OPG to submit the construction application, it has to decide to proceed with the project. OPG is a provincial crown corporation. Its bosses are appointed by the elected provincial government. Which is to say, the elected provincial government is calling the shots on Darlington.

That government, as I have pointed out before, is in a tricky situation with respect to major energy projects. It is also in a tricky situation with respect to its existence. There are two provincial by elections scheduled for September 6. If the governing Liberals lose either or both of them, nothing will change in the legislature, other than the marginal position of whichever of the two opposition parties wins it. The combined opposition can outvote them on bills, meaning they will have to collaborate with one of the two opposition parties to move legislation. If they win both, then they will again have a majority government, and can put pretty much any bill through the legislature.

On a pro-Darlington decision, the only legislative collaboration that I can see is between the Liberals and Conservatives; the NDP have made it plain they are anti-nuclear.

But the only way I can see it coming up as an issue is if the government stops shying away from atomic power for fear of offending organized anti-nuclear groups in downtown Toronto. This is yet another tricky problem for the government. While they worked to put the Liberals into office, the phony greens have since become a massive liability: they are why the Liberals lost their majority last October; see my article from June 19.

In fact, the phony greens almost cost the Liberals power itself, through their hypocritical support of carbon-heavy gas-fired power. The Liberals had to cancel a “green”-supported gas-turbine construction project in Mississauga just days before the election, for fear it would cost them the electoral district that hosted the site. The loss of rural districts was cemented by the rural-urban divide that the “green” crowd exacerbated with their aggressive and rude behaviour toward local opponents of a new GHG-belching gas-fired peaker plant on the Holland Marsh. (Yes, the “greens” actually supported a fossil-fired power plant right next to some of the most naturally fertile agricultural land in Ontario, and shouted down farmers who opposed it. See “Green lobby sells out the Holland Marsh.”) This kind of behaviour gets noticed, and word gets around.

Interestingly, the new federal legislation around environmental reviews was intended explicitly to prevent the very same phony greens from delaying the pipeline projects out west. This is one area where the federal Conservatives actually have something in common with the Ontario Liberals. Another area of common interest is that they would both benefit from the commencement of nuclear construction at Darlington. This would be a major capital project, and a jobs boost to Ontario. Lots of income and sales tax revenue would flow to both levels of government. And if it were a pro-CANDU decision, the feds would finally get some payback from the sale of CANDU to SNC Lavalin last year.

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