“Getting to Yes”

Further to poorly-framed arguments supporting specific hydrocarbon-transportation projects, there was this recent opinion piece written by John Winter, who is the President and CEO of the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce. It was, frankly, disappointing. Not because I disagree with Mr. Winter, but because it was so poorly argued.

The opinion was in response to this previous piece in the same Important CanWest Newspaper of Record. In the first piece, economist Robyn Allen pointed out that the economic arguments being made by Enbridge on the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal were “just not true”. Ms. Allen, in a tightly-argued 600 words, explained the factual misrepresentations in Enbridge’s claims, from the perspective of an economist, using Enbridge’s own numbers. No-where does she suggest the Northern Gateway, or any other project, should be stopped. Instead, she simply criticizes, point-by-point and from a position of considerable knowledge, the mis-characterization of the economic impact of the project as presented in the proposal. She then suggests:

“In the interests of transparency and accountability, British Columbians deserve better than what Enbridge seems capable of delivering.”

Mr Winter’s response to this argument does not engage in the same detailed analysis of the data presented by Enbridge, nor does he directly address any of Ms. Allen’s actual points. Instead he engages in over-the-top and largely fact-free rhetoric. He further characterizes her argument as an “intellectual exercise” to undermine the project:

“It’s disturbing to see how much British Columbian ingenuity is being channelled into our province’s alarming — and growing — ‘culture of no.’ And for what gain?”

I don’t know where I got this idea, but I suspect the gain Ms. Allen was aiming for is that the conversation be “in the interests of transparency and accountability”.

You see, Ms. Allen is a scientist who studied, spent a career working in, and teaches economics. It is her job to scrutinize economic augments and determine if they are fact-based or not. If Mr. Winters disagreed with her factual information, he might have made a counter-point. Instead he engages in a bunch of irrelevant hyperbole:

“In virtually every corner of the province, we’re seeing the same thing: Smart, highly environmentally responsible projects that can employ our children and keep our towns alive are being battered, paralyzed and stomped out.”

I’m not sure what dusty corners of the Province Mr. Winters is spending his time, but the vast majority of large industrial projects in BC are being stomped upon only by rubber stamps. If one looks at the BC Environmental Assessment Office records, one can look at the history of project proposals in BC since the Act came into force in 1995.

Completed:       128
Refused:           3
Pre-application:  69
Exempt:           22
Terminated:        6
Under Review:     10
Withdrawn:        21
Total:           259

So of 259 projects, exactly 3 have been refused permits. That is just over 1%. In contrast, 150 were either issued certificates or were found to be exempt from the process. That is 58%. If you re-calculate those numbers without including 79 that have not yet reached the decision stage, 83% of projects have achieved approvals. Where is the alleged battery occurring here?

As an aside,the Federal EA process numbers are very similar. Well, they were, until the Federal Government in one stroke of a pen in 2012 changed the Federal EA Act, such that thousands of Federal Environmental Assessments will simply not happen now. Where before there was scrutiny, proponents can now fill their boots.

But back to the Project in question: the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Mr Winters continues:

“So there’s a lot at stake here. And frankly, what’s yet to be decided has nothing to do with project economics (which, Ms. Allan, are frankly settled), but rather how we balance economic value against other B.C. priorities, as the Joint Review Panel is assessing.”

This is actually where Mr. Winters is wrongest. Ms. Allen has aptly demonstrated that the project economics are far from settled, and there still exists debate. At the very least, some clarification is required from the project proponent.

It is interesting that many of the environmental protection measures that come out of this type of Environmental Assessment are codified in the review documents as conditions of approval. For example, if the exclusive use of double-hulled tankers was promised by Enbridge, then using single-hulled tankers would be a breach of the Approval, and the certificate can be removed, shutting down the project. However, none of the “economic” commitments have the same status. Enbridge could promise to employ every adult person north of 50 degrees, then only employ three people once the assessment is done, and there would be no recourse for the Province or communities to whom the promises were made. I’m not saying they would do that, but that makes it important that any assessment of the anticipated economic impacts be as accurate, fact-based and defensible as possible- we only get one crack at that part of the project review.

“And with this project, as with any that proposes such substantial benefits for B.C., we hope that British Columbians will take a close look at what’s to gain here. We certainly don’t ask that environmental or community concerns be sidelined. But we’d ask that jobs and economic value not be sidelined as well.”

Ms. Allen is not sidelining economic values, she is assuring they are properly assessed so that we can, as British Columbians, take the close look at what’s to gain for which Mr. Winters is asking. Surely, the CEO and President of the BC Chamber of Commerce wants the public to be provided with factual information, both when they question the economic gains, and when they question the environmental impacts. That is why we have Environmental Assessments, and that is why responsible businesses engage in them.


The entire argument presented by Mr. Winters is framed around “Getting to Yes”, which has become one of those abstract rhetorical phrases that everyone thinks they understand, but in reality it means different things to different people, and is actually completely meaningless. Mr. Winters suggests we need to “Get to Yes” on these projects. But who is it, exactly, that needs to “Get to Yes”?

Does the Provincial Government need to “Get to Yes” by bypassing (or tossing out a la Stephen Harper) their own environmental assessment laws, ignoring the environmental protections afforded by Provincial Law, Federal Law, and our constitutional responsibility to First Nations?

Does the Media need to “Get to Yes” by continuing to publish fact-free editorials that would have us believe that 3 certificate refusals out of 256 applications is some sort of war on resource development?

Does the public need to “Get to Yes” by agreeing to whatever Enbridge says, and refusing to listen to people who point out factual errors in what they promise?

No. It is Enbridge who needs to “Get to Yes”. They will get there by providing realistic data about what they have to offer BC, and what the risks to BC (economic and environmental) are. Then they need to convince us that those risks are managed and mitigated to the point that the economic development they are offering us is sufficient payment.

It is possible that Enbridge will not, with this project, ever “Get to Yes”. But that would not be from a failure of British Columbians to dream, it would be from a failure of Enbridge to convince us they are good for our future.

Leave a Reply