Energy projects deserve both scientific and moral scrutiny


WCR Logo

April 30, 2012

Many people, especially those in the oil industry, will not lament the federal government's intention to restrict public input in the approval process for major energy projects to those directly affected. The approval process is cumbersome, they may say, in large part because of the role played by environmental groups with no direct interest in such projects.

For two reasons, we disagree. First, Canada is a democracy and democracy involves much more than the voters' verdict at the polls every four years. Democracy can be messy and slow; it includes a public right to speak to decision-makers in an open forum on major government decisions.

On that score, Elizabeth May's comment is pertinent: "Canadians are entitled to be concerned about fragile ecosystems in the Arctic or significant sources of new pollution, even if they do not live in the immediate vicinity."

Second, decisions about major energy projects should involve not only the "weighing" of competing interests but also moral concerns. Further, the "data" needed by decision-makers, such as the National Energy Board, is not only technical, scientific information, but also moral reflection on society's priorities.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says the NEB "will come to their decision independently, objectively, based on science."

Scientific input is, of course, essential for intelligent decisions about major energy projects. As a society, however, we ought to be well past the 19th century philosophy of treating science as a god and viewing political issues solely in terms of material progress.

Society must continually choose between seeing creation as a gift or treating it as a matter to be exploited for our material benefit. Many, perhaps most, problems of the Western world can be boiled down to the persistent, unreflective decision to opt for the exploitation model.

Nothing is wrong per se about using creation for humanity's benefit. But it is wrong to systematically avoid treating it as a gift. If creation is a gift, it ought to be received with gratitude and it ought to be shared with some manner of equity.

Societal decisions are rarely, if ever, purely technical ones. They are, first of all, moral decisions. Every political decision determines what sort of society we will be. It also involves a relationship with the Creator. Do we receive creation as gift or do we grab it as though we have a natural right to it?

The good society is a moral society, not simply a prosperous one. For us to be a moral society, our decision-makers, such as the NEB, need more than technical data and input from competing interests. They also need the moral input that can best come from an open public hearing process, a process the federal government is now inclined to severely restrict.