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Who Reviews the Review? We do.

Written by Kai M. A. Chan, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

As Canada waits with bated breath the federal approval or disapproval of the Northern Gateway Project, I and other prominent Canadian scholars have publicly revealed the outcome of our analysis of the report of the Joint Review Panel (JRP), supposedly the basis for this weighty decision.

The final word? A stinging rebuke of the report, signed by 300 scholars around the world, calling for the Harper government to reject the JRP report. We were silent on the broader project.

If approved, the Northern Gateway pipelines would run through the Great Bear Rainforest © Tim Stewart / WWF-Canada

The proposed project would bring as many as 220 massive oil tankers into the isolated, treacherous, and ecologically important waters of the Great Bear Sea. © Tim Stewart / WWF-Canada

This is a much bigger issue than just the proposed pipeline of 1177 km and coupled marine shipping to Asia. The marked failure of the panel to properly consider evidence reveals not only a public poorly served but also a broken Canadian policy process. As one of the lead authors of the scientist letter—the stinging rebuke—I was appalled to discover that not only was the JRP report incomplete, it was in (unexplained) contradiction to scientific evidence in federal government documents, and essentially unjustified in its conclusions.

Let’s put this in perspective. This JRP process is no class project. It was a multi-year study involving three high-profile panelists and teams of lawyers from the proponent, NGOs, and First Nations. It featured more than 9000 official letters of comment and 1179 oral submissions in 17 communities along the BC coast. Participating orally was a considerable undertaking, requiring travel, preparation, and patience—after filing to present to the panel, many had to wait more than a year.

In the context of this magnitude and duration of scrutiny, major errors and omissions are unacceptable. As professors, we grade the report an ‘F’.

As educators, we normally grade papers in private. But if the process is public, then so too must be the grading. The thousands of Canadians who put their own precious time into this process deserve to know its fundamental flaws. Of the 1179 oral submissions, the vast majority expressed significant concerns and negative views about the proposed project. It is hard to imagine that any of these participants were mollified by the report. If they were, I can only imagine that it was because they didn’t know the report’s shortcomings.

They deserve to know. Much of the JRP documentation and the JRP website itself are virtually impenetrable due to their technical nature. Months after the report’s release in December 2013, we had seen no furor about the report’s flaws. Whose job is it to speak out when such processes fail the public?

UBC Professor Eric Taylor, SFU Assistant Professor Anne Salomon and I decided it was our job. Prompts from friends helped us drag ourselves from the research, teaching, and other duties that over-fill our days. Listening to me rant about the flaws we saw separately, friends asked “What are you going to do about it?”

The answer is the letter you can read here (http://bit.ly/1oEbrvi). A letter first signed and distributed by 23 prominent Canadian colleagues, which yielded over 150 professors and 300 scientists total, from several nations. Several luminaries are amongst them: fellows of the Royal Society, holders of the Order of Canada, an associate provost, and Canada Research Chairs.

Every scientist who sticks his neck out risks being labeled an activist, an enemy of Canada. But we are no enemies of Canada, and we are no knee-jerk contrarians. I have worked closely with Canadian government agencies, assisting its missions with fisheries and oceans, parks, and environmental assessment and protection. I hope to continue doing so. In my official remarks to the JRP in January 2013, I raised several concerns as a scientist and a citizen, but I closed by explicitly deferring to their judgment about the interests of Canadians.

That was before I saw the flaws in the JRP report.

Even still, note that our stance is neither for nor against the Northern Gateway Project itself. Our issue is only with the report.

When a report is the foundation for a decision whose anticipation has already brought years of turmoil to B.C., it must be sound. If it’s not sound, it must be fixed. If it’s not fixed, the resulting decision cannot be trusted as in the interests of British Columbians and Canadians.

It’s not too late to reject the report, and to do it properly.

© Kai Chan

© Kai Chan

On May 26th, the letter signed by 300 scientists outlining the flaws in the Northern Gateway Project was sent to Prime Minister Harper.  Last week, WWF-Canada asked you to Stand with Science by telling our government that you too believe that the Northern Gateway Project is not in Canada’s best interest.  This letter, signed by more 20,000 people,  has been sent to the Prime Minister and it is now up to him whether he chooses to hear or ignore the voices.