Fracking will be approved in NL, or, Throwing caution to the wind

EDO_1304_AprilFrackingFakeAd-C1.jpgIn the not so distant future, there will be a review process to determine if fracking is to be allowed on the west coast of Newfoundland. This review process will take the form of an environmental assessment and, inevitably, will give fracking the go-ahead.

When this happens there will be a knee-jerk reaction and a number of people will question the integrity of the scientists and policy makers involved in the process, saying things like “they were bought off,” or some such gesturing to untoward behaviour or corruption. However, this kind of conspiratorial narrative is not why fracking will be approved. Fracking will be approved because of the methodology used for the environmental assessment process itself, and specifically the way policy makers are directed to interpret the “precautionary principle.”

The precautionary principle has been at the center of environmental discourse since the late-70s, and is a recognized principle in both international and Canadian law. But it is also something that has been a point of much controversy and uncertainty with regard to what precaution implies. Before getting into more specific details, let us pause for a pop quiz:

What do you think the precautionary principle implies as it relates to environmental assessment?

  1. Where there are uncertain risks or hazards, a particular project should not proceed.
  2. Where there are uncertain risks or hazards, a particular project should proceed.
  3. Both 1 and 2.
  4. None of the above.
  5. All of the above.

If you picked 5, then you are (mostly) correct. The precautionary principle is so widely interpreted and so variously stated that in some of its applications it is basically meaningless. But nonetheless, most all governments and government agencies conducting environmental assessments feel compelled to state some jargon on precaution when describing methodology. Here is a sample from the Government of Canada and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, cited from a document about environmental assessment guidelines for the Nalcor Labrador-island transmission link:

One of the purposes of environmental assessment is to ensure that projects are considered in a careful and precautionary manner before action is taken in connection with them in order to ensure that such projects do not cause significant adverse environmental effects.

Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

This wonderful piece of sophistry/formulation of the precautionary principle from the 1992 Rio Declaration is sometimes called the “weak version,” because it allows for measures to be taken to attempt to mitigate risks, even while there is uncertainty about what those risks actually are. This is the version of the precautionary principle most often found in documents relating to environmental assessment from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. This understanding of precaution is precisely why the review of fracking will determine that it will be allowed to go ahead, even while risks and uncertainty are present.

The “strong version” of the precautionary principle, on the other hand, holds that where uncertainty of potential risks is present, then activities should not proceed. This is an approach to precaution that says, why take the risk? It is better, from this point of view, to err on the side of caution rather than debate what constitutes acceptable risks or countermeasures. One formulation of the strong precautionary principle is found in the UN World Charter for Nature, to which Canada is a signatory, that says,

Activities which are likely to pose a significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed.

The important difference between this wording and the Rio Declaration wording cited by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is, once again, the way it directs policy makers to act based on the outcomes of environmental assessments. One will approve projects with uncertain risks, while the other will not.

All this to say, in the end it will not so much be about the findings of the review of fracking in NL (which will likely be the same as the findings of the independent assessment commissioned by the CNLOPB, which says quite clearly there are risks and uncertainties with fracking). Instead, the decision to approve fracking will hinge on the interpretation of the precautionary principle, and is therefore a foregone conclusion. This is certainly not to say, in the words of the Borg, that resistance is futile. In fact, it seems the only thing that will prevent fracking in NL is sustained pressure and wide-spread popular dissent.


  1. Daniel Miller
    November 26, 2013

    Clear and informative post. I learned a lot about about how our environmental assessment process works by reading this. Thanks for doing the research and explaining everything so well.

    Up until the last two sentences, it seemed like you were trying to say that the legal/policy framework will be a primary cause in the go ahead of fracking. As if the laws and habits of policymaking, in and of themselves, had power over the outcome.

    Based on the excellent info and insight you shared here, it seems that is not quite the case. Rather, I read your post as saying: policy itself is malleable. Whatever those with power wish the precautionary principle to do, it can/will do.

    This leads to my question. Instead of “the decision to approve fracking will hinge on the interpretation of the precautionary principle” would it be more accurate to say “the decision to approve fracking will hinge on the will of politicians, which will not be impeded by the precautionary principle?”

  2. November 26, 2013

    Daniel — I like how you put that, re “the will of politicians, which will not be impeded by the precautionary principle.” It does seem to me that this notion of precaution is variously used in what could be characterized as politically expedient ways. I wonder if an analysis of environmental assessment documents might show that the particular use of the precautionary principle (or the precautionary “approach,” as it is called in some docs) is employed as a way to give some projects the green light and to bring others to a halt. Maybe a project for another day…
    Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment.

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