Today’s Globe and Mail reports: “The Harper government has approved Canada’s fifth oil sands mine after the project spent six years under regulatory scrutiny, prompting a senior cabinet minister and energy executives to argue lengthy reviews are unacceptable.”
The report continues:
“The Joslyn project is a telling example for the need for a more efficient and effective regulatory system,” Mr. Oliver told reporters. “It is crystal clear that we need to put an end to unreasonable delays – delays that can jeopardize the viability of projects like Joslyn and harm our reputation as an attractive place to do business.”
Has Total never before dealt with regulators? Why are they surprised it took so long? What else is new? These are some thoughts that come to mind as one reads this report.
Obviously the system is seriously flawed. But it is the same elsewhere. Which prompts us to ask what is wrong and what could be done.
It is easy to blame a shortage of technicians and engineers in the reviewing agency. Shame, they are so few and so busy they did not have time to get down to reviewing the documents. I have been on projects where the project promoter has offered to pay the salaries of more regulator reviewers in the hopes that it would speed up the review process. I have been on projects where the regulator’s engineers took three times as long to review a report as it took me to write the report. I have been on projects where the regulator’s office was so messy, he could not find the report I had submitted for review two months back; I had to get him another copy.
There is no doubt in my mind that a shortage of educated and able reviewers is part of the problem. What, other than the prospect of unemployment, would induce any competent scientist or engineer to join a regulatory agency simply to review work done by others? Part of the solution may be to retain other consultants, paid normal consulting rates, to review documents. At least another consultant can be bullied to meet a reasonable review schedule.
Still it is difficult to believe that all the blame for the six years can be placed at the feet of the scientists and engineers charged with reading the documents of others and forwarding review reports to managers. The blame, I suspect, must ultimately be that of the managers and probably the career bureaucrats and politicians who have to finally sign off.
I once had a boss who had been a very senior person in a very powerful US environmental agency. He told me quietly one evening in a pub in a deserted part of Colorado that review approval is the most politically fraught process of any project. He confessed that he had left the agency, partly because of salary, but primarily because he had grown tired of the politics of the approval process. “The thought of a phone call from yet another politician or head of an anti pressure group was just too much,” he said.
Here is what one Liberal Canadian politician said of the Joslyn process:
Liberal environment critic David McGuinty said the Conservatives appear determined to gut the environmental review process to accelerate approval of major resource projects. He agreed some regulatory systems can be made more efficient, but said Mr. Oliver is setting unrealistic time limits. “It’s not a question of speed, it’s a question of credibility,” Mr. McGuinty said.
In brief the review is not of the technical issues. It is a review of the credibility of the project proponent. It is an opportunity for politicians to hold up projects that do not dovetail with their political agendas. It is the time for pressure groups to gather, party, protest, and post letters, twitters, and blogs. Consider the delay by Obama of a decision on the Keystone Pipeline if you doubt me.
We could put the blame on the complexity of the process. We have a plethora of steps in the process and a plethora of processes. I need not list the EAs, EISs, and more that constitute the stepping stones to permits and project startup. Maybe we need fewer documents; why not just one consolidated document? And why not fewer steps; how about just a draft and a final? Wasn’t there a start to this some time ago? I vaguely recall a government announcement of a consolidated project approval office. It is up and running?
The other side of the argument is easy to make. I have worked with incompetent and venial project proponents who are fully to blame for the time it took to get project approval. As consultants we were denied full funding to do full studies. Our clients took this attitude: “Do as little as credible, and see what the regulators get excited about. Then we will give you budget to work on their issues, and no more.”
Conversely I have worked on projects where the project proponent has been slick and even diabolical in promoting their project. I once spent weeks helping a lawyer on the technical documents that helped spread panic in the population that there was an imminent shortage of space for waste and they would soon be out of work or have to dispose of their own waste. The project to provide more waste space got fast track approval.
Then there was the project where the nicest guy you could imagine had an unlimited bar tab to go drinking with the locals and get them thinking about and recognizing the potential benefits of the proposed project. Whatever it takes in the face of recalcitrant regulators and politicians.
It is hard to understand why approval of a new oil sands mine would take six years, Churchill was able to defeat the Nazis in less time. It is not as though we are ignorant of how to oil sands mine, and we are not ignorant of the impacts of an oil sands mines. What new evidence was required? What new proof was demanded? What new process had to be invented to teach the approving regulators about oil sands mining?
On the other side of the coin and news, today I received word that a mere three months after submitting our application for expansion of a mining facility, and a mere single face-to-face meeting, we have received approval. Bravo to those regulators. Those I met were genuine, intelligent, curious, asked hard questions, but quickly saw and understood the issues. And they deliberated fast and decided faster. Please do not change things in that jurisdiction.