2014: Two Big Biodiversity Issues

As 2013 draws to a close, there are two big biodiversity-related issues in BC that are of particular interest to me: (i) the status ignotus of the Cohen Commission’s findings on Fraser River sockeye salmon, and (ii) the recent National Energy Board Joint Review Panel’s (JRP) decision on the Northern Gateway Pipeline Proposal.

The Cohen Commission: It has been 14 months since Justice Bruce Cohen released his commission’s report on the “missing” Fraser River sockeye salmon and related issues for BC salmon after more than two years of investigation and $26 million spent. Since that time there has, regrettably, been precious little to show for such a massive expenditure of time, human expertise, passion, to say nothing of the money ($26 million would keep the Experimental Lakes research area (see Globe and Mail, March 16th, 2013) in northwestern Ontario doing its important work for more than 26 years!). I emailed the federal Minister of Fisheries several times, but such emails elicited either no response or only vague statements about the need to continue to “review” the report’s 75 recommendations. Inquiries to various folks who are following the issue say that there remain only “rumours” of statements of response (which could mean still actually doing nothing) for seven of the 75 recommendations. The fate of the remaining 68 recommendations remains obscure. How ironic it is that so little has been done after such a large effort by the commission in the same year that that Pacific salmon were officially recognized as the provincial fishes of BC.

Northern Gateway:  The decision by the JRP to give a guarded recommendation in favour of the Northern Gateway (NGP) Proposal, while a personal disappointment, did not come as a surprise. First, the composition of the JRP is quite interesting. For one thing, it could be argued that the panel lacked any expertise in an area critical to assessment of the risks and benefits of the project – biodiversity valuation. By biodiversity valuation, I mean the exercise of ascribing realistic monetary and social values to biodiversity that may be at risk from the NGP. While the JRP report contains references to “passive use” values they were never quantified and the panel would have benefited greatly from having an expert in societal and economic valuation of biodiversity as an actual member. For instance, the panel concluded that, overall, the adverse environmental effects of the NGP (after mitigation) on most of the valued ecosystem components considered (e.g., fishes, birds, soils, etc) would likely not be “significant”, yet never define what is meant by “significant”. Second, the accounting of potential negative effects of the NGP is inherently more uncertain given the lack of information on some critical issues (e.g., behaviour of diluted bitumen in water, especially marine waters, the aforementioned difficulty of proper valuation of biodiversity, uncertainty about the probability of an oil spill or spills, incomplete surveys of rare plant biodiversity). When combined with the allegedly greater certainty about how many jobs “will” be created and how much money exporting bitumen to Asia “will” generate, with such uncertainty regarding the potential negative effects, it is almost impossible to see how a decision that “…Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge NGP than without it” could not have been rendered by the JRP. This is perhaps especially true in a general atmosphere where we are repeatedly reminded of the apparently “fragile” state of the economy and the near constant barrage of pro-NGP advertisements in national newspapers and TV. I remain optimistic that to proceed or not with the NGP will be based on a rational accounting of all environmental and social costs and benefits, but I cannot shake the feeling that, overall, the deck is stacked in favour of this particular development. It’s this feeling that the deck is stacked that is most worrisome, regardless of what eventual decision is made.

Image: Sockeye salmon / US Forest Service / CC BY 2.0