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Scott Pruitt broke the EPA. (It can be fixed.)

In 2017, just a few days after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, a freshman GOP lawmaker with only a few days on the job of his own, proposed House Resolution 861. Its language was ominous: “The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

I was in my sixth year on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board when H.R.861 was introduced. When I called senior EPA colleagues to assess the threat, I was assured that it would never happen; the nation’s environmental laws, and the agency that makes and enforces them, could not be killed in two years by a 10-word resolution written by a rookie congressman.

Then along came Scott Pruitt.

Since taking over as administrator, Pruitt has overseen the nominations and appointments of a diverse array of lobbyists and corporate insiders while at the same time letting key vacancies languish. He has put the brakes on enforcement, slowed or suspended progressive regulatory actions initiated by his predecessors, and defended draconian budget cutsproposed by the White House.

He has also gutted the agency’s science advisory boards, one of which I proudly served on. Pruitt’s directive to “reform” the EPA’s science advisory boards, which I believe is both unethical and illegal, led me to join a group of scientists who are suing the agency.

From where I sit as both a scientist and former EPA adviser, the motivation behind Scott Pruitt’s actions is as clear as day: He isn’t reforming the agency; he’s trying to kill it.

The good news for the EPA is that a majority of Americans support its fundamental mission to protect the environment and public health. And, judging by recent reports, bipartisan calls for Scott Pruitt to resign are growing louder. But for the EPA to really rebound after Pruitt’s repeated assaults, the agency will need to address some of its legitimate shortcomings.

I’ve been dedicated to environmental science since college, and I have devoted a large chunk of my academic career to government service since shortly after George W. Bush was elected president.

My first job advising the EPA came in 2003 under Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican. I rejoined the EPA in 2011 when Lisa Jackson, a Democrat, was appointed to lead the agency. In spite of divergent agency priorities under different administrators, there were three constants that held the agency together: a respect for science, genuine concern for environmental and public health, and career EPA staff who served as a buffer during political transitions. All three are under attack by Scott Pruitt.

He has floated proposals that have not only ignored widely accepted and peer-reviewed science, they have been toxic to morale at the EPA. Last summer, for example, Pruitt – who for years has questioned established climate science – proposed a series of polarizing “red team/blue team” debates aimed at unraveling the public consensus – and years of hard work by EPA staff – on climate change.

Just last month, Pruitt vowed to enact new rules limiting what pseudo scientists like Steve Milloy have deceptively called “secret science”. On the surface, such a rule sounds like a good idea; who, in their right mind would want secret science? But, in reality, this rule would mean that critical public health studies could no longer be used to inform EPA policy because some of the data are protected doctor-patient or researcher-participant confidentiality.

Also last month, Priutt issued a series of talking points to agency staff instructing them to exaggerate uncertainties about the human causes of climate change. In effect, Pruitt is asking EPA staffers to lie.

As a result of these – and other – actions, career civil servants are leaving the agency in droves, further hastening EPA’s brain drain.

In spite of the chaos and controversy that’s swarming around Scott Pruitt’s EPA, those of us who care about the agency have to be honest with ourselves and admit that the agency isn’t entirely free of responsibility for the situation it finds itself in.

Going back several administrations, the EPA has done little to harden itself against the criticism that it’s detached from the social and economic realities faced by many Americans. This, in turn, has opened the agency to repeated attacks from those who incorrectly believethat protecting livelihoods and businesses means repealing “job killing” environmental regulations. It’s rhetoric like this that created an opening at the head of the EPA for a conservative activist like Scott Pruitt.

When the time comes, resuscitating the EPA will be an urgent – but not unprecedented – task for new leaders in government. The easiest part of the job will be replacing Scott Pruitt, if he’s still around, with an administrator who doesn’t have disdain for EPA’s mission and who doesn’t mistrust its employees. Another easy step will be to initiate a thorough house cleaning. Pruitt appointees who would like us to believe that certain chemicals and pesticides aren’t toxic must go. Appointees whose integrity is compromised by conflicts of interest must also be fired.

The hardest part of the job will be reinventing an agency that is in dire need of reinvention. The EPA’s dual-purpose mission of protecting the environment from people and protecting people from a damaged environment must remain intact. But, the way in which the EPA balances environmental protection with the hopes and needs of ordinary Americans must change in the same way that the rest of us who work in the environmental sciences have had to change.

In my job, we don’t just talk about “the environment” anymore; we talk instead about the need for making trade-offs across environmental, social and economic goals. In other words, we talk about sustainability.

Step one is to establish better relationships with the communities the EPA serves. The risks that a reinvented EPA will be responsible for managing – from the environmental and and public health impacts of climate change to polluted water systems in cities like Flint – must be jointly defined by EPA staff and the citizens who pay their salaries. Likewise, how the magnitude of these risks is measured must be based on science and, importantly, people’s values.

I can already hear strident environmentalists bristling at the suggestion of letting public values decide. But they needn’t be afraid: Public values already decide. How we think about environmental health is based entirely on our values.

What we deem to be a “healthy environment” is a constructed, values-based judgment; what we really mean is, healthy enough so that we can feel comfortable with how much of the environment we’re prepared to give up in return for other things — social and economic — that we also value but for different reasons.

A reinvented EPA must also forge stronger partnerships with business: Corporate America needs the EPA as much as the EPA needs corporate America. Consumers are demanding more leadership from companies when it comes to sustainability, and they are punishing companies – by withholding their money – that don’t deliver on this new social contract.

In my experience working at the intersection of sustainability and business, I’ve been repeatedly told by executives that it’s much easier for them to justify leaving potential earnings on the table in the name of environmental and social progress when they are compelled to do so by regulation. Here’s where better partnerships between companies and a revamped EPA can help. Corporate America and the EPA must work together over the long term to craft sensible and, importantly, adaptable regulations that are responsive to changing environmental, social, and economic conditions.

Taken together, the American people will benefit from a reinvented EPA because the agency will do a better job of responding to their needs and concerns. Businesses will benefit because they’ll be better able to plan for the shocks brought by new regulations. And, the EPA will benefit because it will have powerful new allies – companies and more supportive voters – to help it achieve its mission.

All of this will mean less helter-skelter at an agency that’s essential for American progress. And, importantly, it will mean that we’ll never again see the perceived need for another Scott Pruitt.


This article first appeared in The Conversation.

Debunking Steve Milloy’s Junk Science

In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Steve Milloy concocted a spectacular — and fictitious — tale of corruption within the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr. Milloy accused the EPA of stacking the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC, with scientists that were friendly to the agency’s position on the health risks from small particulate matter so that it could implement a series of unnecessary and restrictive policies under the guise of protecting human health.

How did the EPA do this? Milloy argues that the agency conspired against the government and the American people by engaging in what could best be characterized as a years-long racketeering scheme. According to Mr. Milloy’s conspiracy theory, the agency recognized during the 1990s that it was not getting support for its policies on particulates from its independent science advisors. So, the agency felt the need to stack the scientific deck in its favor.

Following Milloy’s theory through to its logical conclusion, the EPA would have initiated what could best be described as a complicated long-con. It would have begun with the awarding of research grants to independent scientists who were studying health risks associated with particulate matter.

Years later, with these grateful scientists in the agency’s pocket, EPA Administrators appointed successively by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, would have started to offer them seats on CASAC so they could offer recommendations that were more in line with the agency’s unnecessarily restrictive stance on the chronic health risks associated with exposure to fine particulates.

Going further with Milloy’s theory, the agency operating under the administration of Barack Obama, would have heaped even more money on the CASAC scientists to seal their cooperation in the conspiracy.

There are several errors and obfuscations in Mr. Milloy’s theory.

One is the suggestion that CASAC and the Science Advisory Board (SAB)—which Mr. Milloy also lumps into his conspiracy theory—can directly influence EPA policy making. Neither can. Yes, it is true that both boards are charged with reviewing the scientific basis of some potential EPA rules. However, these boards don’t review the rules themselves, and they have no discretion to select the cases that are placed before them; both of those jobs fall to the Administrator. So, if an Administrator appointed by Bill Clinton in the 1990s didn’t want to receive a conflicting opinion about particulates, the solution would have been simple: Don’t ask EPAs independent science advisors for a review.

But, let’s say for a minute that an EPA Administrator did ask for a review. Accepting, or indeed rejecting, input from the EPA’s advisory boards is also at the Administrator’s discretion. So, any EPA Administrator who wanted to exclude external scientific peer review from the agency’s rule making could do it much more easily than by engaging in a multi-year and, importantly, illegal conspiracy.

Milloy serves up his conspiracy theory to justify the recent dismissal of many of the EPA’s independent science advisors, and he uses it to call for EPA reforms aimed at reducing bias and restoring the agency’s integrity. Milloy argues that the only way to do this is through a combination of congressional action and steely-eyed administrative resolve from Scott Pruitt. In Milloy’s words, the problem is that the EPA is rife with conflict-of-interest, which could have been eradicated years ago were it not for the threat of a Senate filibuster or Obama veto.

Here again, Milloy fails to point out that all of the EPA’s independent science advisors—whether they are from industry or the academy—since both groups are already represented on the agency’s advisory boards—must undergo rigorous ethics and conflict-of-interest reviews. Indeed, EPA science advisors undergo the same set of reviews as other special federal government employees appointed under the administration of Donald Trump. If a conflict is found to exist, these advisors must either be disqualified from weighing in on matters where they are conflicted, or they must be disqualified from service on the advisory boards altogether.

Milloy also neglects to mention that it is the EPA Administrator who has the final say, after the ethics and conflict-of-interest reviews have been completed, on the membership of the agency’s scientific advisory boards. So, if an Administrator wanted more—or less—of a certain kind of advisor, he or she could simply make that decision both unilaterally and discretely. There’d be no need for making a lot of headline-grabbing and potentially counterproductive noise; that is, unless, it was what you were intending to do all along.

Finally, Milloy also fails to understand the two-way nature of conflict-of-interest. Even if one were to believe that the federal conflict-of-interest rules were flawed, tipping them in favor of academic scientists beholden to a corrupt agency, it takes an enormous leap of faith to believe that EPA science advisors from a regulated company or industry would magically be inoculated against the very same accusations of bias.

But, Mr. Milloy’s most egregious act of misdirection is the one that is at the very heart of his conspiracy theory. Though it is entirely befitting of the man who created the widely-ridiculed and easily debunked website, it is irresponsible to suggest that small particulates from smokestacks and tailpipes don’t pose a risk to human health.

Just ask the thousands of people who live with, or are at risk of contracting lung cancer because of their chronic exposure to small particulates. Or, ask physicians and scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That is unless Mr. Milloy also suggests that these independent patients, doctors, and scientists are all accomplices in the EPA’s grand conspiracy.


This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. An edited version was published by The Wall Street Journal.

Business will save us?

If there’s one group that’s basking in the long shadow cast by Donald Trump’s ill-fated decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, it’s business. In story after story, reporters and pundits are hailing businesses – large and small – as the would-be saviours of much needed progress in the efforts to curb the risks associated with climate change.

Shortly after Mr. Trump announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, a host of multinational companies – AppleDisneyGeneral ElectricTeslaMars, among others – moved to cement their positions on the reality of climate change by committing to the Paris accord with or without support for the deal from the White House.

It’s true that many corporations have been walking the talk on climate change for a while now. For instance, many companies now find themselves in a position to power their manufacturing facilities and shops with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar; others are creatively combining on-site renewables with purchased offsets to meet their 100-per-cent renewable energy targets. Not to be outdone, utilities around the world – including DTE in Michigan and Appalachian Power in West Virginia coal country – are either reducing their reliance on coal as an energy source, or are phasing it out altogether.

But here’s the thing: It’s relatively easy and painless for businesses to pledge their allegiance to the Paris climate accord. For one thing, the agreement is non-binding, and has no enforcement mechanism, so talk can be sold on the cheap. We also live in a time when it makes decreasing economic sense for companies, especially utilities, to rely on greenhouse gas-intense fuel sources such as coal when more climate-friendly options – such as natural gas and renewables – are cheaper.

As we assess the business response to Donald Trump’s decision, it’s also important to recognize that pro-Paris pledges have more to do with following through on their long-gestating corporate strategies – and drawing benefits from sunk cost – than they do with new strategic shifts in the direction of acting more aggressively to address climate-change risks. Success in any business is built upon companies taking the long view when it comes to their investments. As it became increasingly apparent more than a decade ago that both customer expectations and the regulatory landscape were tilting in the direction of climate action, businesses around the world responded by planning and investing accordingly. Thus, the position of many businesses when it comes to the Paris Agreement today reflects past investments more than it does future commitments.

More telling about the stand taken by many businesses on the Paris climate accord in light of the “we are still in” rhetoric is what they were doing in the weeks and months before Mr. Trump’s decision.

Take for example the recent lobbying efforts by many of the United States’ wealthiest and most influential corporations, which are aimed at rolling back pledges they made to address their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. You may recall that it was barely two weeks into Mr. Trump’s tenure in the White House before chief executives from the United States’ automobile manufacturers lamented to him personally that the requirement to comply with today’s fuel efficiency regulations – which were developed with companies’ co-operation as part of the deal to save them from bankruptcy barely a decade ago – was cutting too deeply into their already mighty profits. Similarly, oil and gas companies have – since Mr. Trump’s election – placed on hold plans to install new equipment, and to retrofit existing infrastructure, which would be aimed at preventing emissions of the most potent greenhouse gases.

At the end of the day, I am an optimist. I couldn’t, in good conscience, do my job if I weren’t. From this perspective, I do believe it is still possible – indeed, necessary– to leverage the influence of business to address the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges; the indisputable reality of human-caused climate change is one of them.

But in my role, I’m also required to be an honest broker. From this perspective, the private sector still has much work to do if it is to lead on the climate change file. Investors will need to be more assertive in terms of how they allocate capital toward climate progressives, and away from climate Luddites. The same is true of consumers who must exert their own influence by voting with their wallets. Companies themselves will need to work more aggressively to divest their operations from fossil fuels. Most important, business will need to be more proactive in the voluntary search for more innovative climate solutions. In the absence of regulation, real leadership from business on climate will require new strategies and investments that push them to be truly sustainable, and not merely less unsustainable.


This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Forget Nudges. We Need a Heavy Lift.

So-called “nudge units” are popping up in governments all around the world.

The best-known examples include the U.K.’s Behavioural Insights Team, created in 2010, and the White House-based Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, introduced by the Obama administration in 2014. Their mission is to leverage findings from behavioral science so that people’s decisions can be nudged in the direction of their best intentions without curtailing their ability to make choices that don’t align with their priorities.

Overall, these – and other – governments have made important strides when it comes to using behavioral science to nudge their constituents into better choices. Yet, the same governments have done little to improve their own decision-making processes. Consider big missteps like the Flint water crisis. How could officials in Michigan decide to place an essential service – safe water – and almost 100,000 people at risk in order to save US$100 per day for three months? No defensible decision-making process should have allowed this call to be made.

When it comes to many of the big decisions faced by governments – and the private sector – behavioral science has more to offer than simple nudges. Behavioral scientists who study decision-making processes could also help policy-makers understand why things went wrong in Flint, and how to get their arms around a wide array of society’s biggest problems – from energy transitions to how to best approach the refugee crisis in Syria.

The idea of nudging people in the direction of decisions that are in their own best interest has been around for a while.But it was popularized in 2008 with the publication of the bestseller Nudge. A common nudge goes something like this: if we want to eat better but are having a hard time doing it, choice architectscan reengineer the environment in which we make our food choices so that healthier options are intuitively easier to select, without making it unrealistically difficult to eat junk food if that’s what we’d rather do. So, for example, we can shelve healthy foods at eye level in supermarkets, with less-healthy options relegated to the shelves nearer to the floor. Likewise, if we want to encourage more people to be organ donors, choice architects can design the form we fill out at the DMV so that the choice we make without thinking is the one that may allow us to save someone’s life in the future.

In my own research group, we lump these kinds of interventions under the umbrella of passive decision supportbecause they don’t require a lot of effort on the part of a decision-maker. Indeed, these approaches are about exploiting – not correcting – the judgmental biases that people bring with them to all manner of decisions, large and small.

Since the publication of “Nudge,” there has been a proliferation of interest in bringing choice architecture into the policy mainstream. Even institutions like the World Bank and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development are rolling out their own nudge units. And, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the private sector has jumped on the increasingly crowded bandwagon of for-profit nudging.  We’ve successfully tested nudges for water conservationand sustainable food choice. Others have applied nudges to an even broader range of contexts. There’s no denying that choice architecture can work like gangbusters, which explains the widespread interest.

Nudges work for a wide array of choices, from ones we face every day to those that we face infrequently. Likewise, nudges are particularly well-suited to decisions that are complex with lots of different alternatives to choose from. And, they are advocated in situations where the outcomes of our decisions are delayed far enough into the future that they feel uncertain or abstract. This describes many of the big decisions policy-makers face, so it makes sense to think the solution must be more nudge units.

But herein lies the rub. For every context where a nudge seems like a realistic option, there’s at least another context where the application of passive decision support would be either be impossible – or, worse, a mistake.

Take, for example, the question of energy transitions. These transitions are often characterized by the move from infrastructure based on fossil fuels to renewables to address all manner of risks, including those from climate change. These are decisions that society makes infrequently. They are complex. And, the outcomes – which are based on our ability to meet conflicting economic, social and environmental objectives – will be delayed. But, absent regulation that would place severe restrictions on the kinds of options we could choose from – and which, incidentally, would violate the freedom-of-choice tenet of choice architecture – there’s no way to put renewable infrastructure options at proverbial eye level for state or federal decision-makers, or their stakeholders.

Simply put, a nudge for a decision like this would be impossible. In these cases, decisions have to be made the old-fashioned way: with a heavy lift instead of a nudge.

Complex policy decisions like this require what we call active decision support. In these cases, specialists trained in the science of decision-making must work with people both to help them to overcome predictable biases and to approach decisions in a way that is different from how they might otherwise make them instinctively. To inform and structure these kinds of decisions, we – like choice architects – also look to insights from the behavioral sciences. For example, we have a rich understanding of the decision-making shortcutsthat people apply, as well as of the predictable biases that accompany them. So, we know what to be on the lookout for when we help individuals and groups make better decisions.

When evaluating problems that unfold over long periods of time, we know that people tend not to look at cumulative effects, or consider how choices made today may restrict the choices that can be made in the future.  Likewise, we see that decision-makers struggle with questions about how to put boundaries around the problem before them. For example, who really counts as a legitimate stakeholder, and who doesn’t? Likewise, are there hard deadlines or financial ceilings that must be obeyed? Or are these really soft constraints that can be challenged if the right option can be identified?

We’ve also learned that decision-makers often fail to adequately account for the broad range of objectivesthat ought to guide their decisions, as well as the performance measures that let them know if they’ve achieved them. And, we know that the manner in which people search for alternatives is often incremental at best. People look to obvious and easy-to-find options, the tendency that nudges exploit, at the expense of the creativity that’s required to address the really complex challenges.

Perhaps worst of all, we observe that people avoid the necessary trade-offswhen a choice can’t simultaneously achieve all of the objectives that they deem to be important. It’s often the case that the objectives that push emotional hot buttons, like fear, are the ones we pay the most attention to when trade-offs are difficult or uncomfortable, even if these objectives play a relatively small role in terms of advancing our overall well-being.

Active decision support helps decision-makers to overcome all of these obstacles, as well as others.

Unlike nudging, the intent of active decision support isn’t to direct people toward a specific course of action. It is to structure the decision-making process so that resulting choices are defensible– in other words, in line with our prioritized objectives. For big policies, this includes the deliberate balancing act between social, economic and environmental well-being.

The good news for policy-makers is that a wide range of toolsand approachesare available which may help them make more defensible decisions.  These tools work by breaking complex decisions into more cognitively manageable parts. And they are desperately needed. The wicked problemsfaced by society can’t be nudged away. Emergencies like the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the slow violenceof climate change cry out for active decision support.

Yet, as governments amass nudge units, and as the private sector adopts a behavioral mindset in their marketing and public relations offices, the need for behavioral insights that support complex decisions goes unmet. Why? Perhaps because active decision support is often seen as something smart, educated people in the pubic and private sectors should be able to do intuitively, on their own. But, the simple truth is, they can’t. And, without investing in building the internal capacity for active decision support, they won’t.


This article first appeared in The Conversation.

There Will Be More Spills From Oil Pipelines. Guaranteed.

A key dimension of the current debate surrounding the proposed transcontinental oil pipelines focuses on environmental health and safety. Opponents of pipelines like Northern Gateway and Keystone XL argue that the risks of an oil spill, and the associated environmental consequences are too high, and provide sufficient cause for abandoning projects.  A case in point is a pipeline spill, which occurred just last Wednesday (July 16 , 2015) south of Fort McMurray, AB. Meanwhile, proponents of pipelines point to promises made by companies (like Enbridge and TransCanada) regarding state-of-the-art monitoring and response systems that will greatly reduce the risk of an oil spill.

There’s no reason to think that companies that develop pipelines are interested in neglecting their responsibilities toward the environment. Pipeline companies have responsibilities to their clients, and to their shareholders, and future accidents would cost them all dearly.  Likewise, in today’s climate, any pipeline company would be under close regulatory scrutiny regarding the operation of their respective projects. However, this doesn’t mean that  companies aren’t engaging in wishful thinking about the environmental and health risks associated with their proposed pipeline projects.

Consider the following: On July 6, 2013, an unattended train carrying crude oil ran away, derailed, and exploded killing 47 in in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Later that same day, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed on final approach at the San Francisco International Airport, killing three and critically injuring 12 others. Eighteen days later, a high-speed train derailed near Santiago de Compostela in Spain killing 79 people and injuring more than approximately 140 others.

The investigations into these three accidents pointed to human error, and specifically carelessness, as the primary cause in each case. The same conclusions about human error have been drawn in a number of other recent high-profile accidents, ranging from the grounding and partial sinking of the MS Costa Concordia cruise ship off the west coast of Italy in 2012, with 30 people confirmed dead, and the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, resulting in the deaths of its seven member crew.

What’s particularly tragic about these accidents is that they all occurred in highly regulated tightly monitored industries where promises—and indeed track records—around safety are critically important indicators of performance: air travel, shipping, rail transport, and space exploration. It would be incorrect, not to mention irresponsible, to suggest that any of the companies involved—and NASA in the case of the Space Shuttle Columbia—wantedor deservedthese accidents. It would be equally incorrect and irresponsible to suggest that a pipeline company would want, or should deserve, accidents involving their projects.

But, the fact is, these accidents happened, and the question is why?

One of the more elegant explanations comes from the sociologist Diane Vaughan. When studying the loss of another Space Shuttle, the Challenger in 1986, she found that NASA engineers and decision makers had become so accustomed to undertaking aberrant behaviors—“cutting corners” —that these behaviors became part of the agency’s standard operating procedure; this in spite of the fact these behaviours were well outside NASA’s own rules about safety. Dr. Vaughan termed this phenomenon the “normalization of deviance”. She suggested, in a nutshell, that aberrant behaviors are allowed to become normalized by actors—and within institutions—because, most of the time, nothing bad happens as a result of them. That is, until something bad happens.

In science, a phenomenon is termed “robust” when it happens with regularity, and this is the case with the normalization of deviance. It happens almost everywhere. Employees steal a little from their employers, until they get caught. Students cheat a little on assignments and exams, until they get caught. And people in companies routinely cut corners on safety, until accidents happen. Indeed, the normalization of deviance has already worked its way into the business of oil pipelines.

Three years ago, on July 25, 2010, a segment of an Enbridge pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan, spilling more than 3.3 million litres of heavy oil from Alberta into the Kalamazoo River. I lived and worked in Michigan at the time, and calling the spill a major environmental and social catastrophe would be a serious understatement. And, the consequences of the spill linger to this day.

Even though alarms sounded in Enbridge’s Edmonton control room at the time of the spill, it was 18 hours before the company halted the flow of oil, preventing more oil from spilling. In fact, at the time the alarms sounded, Enbridge employees attributed the alarms to an air bubble—not an uncommon occurrence—and actually increasedpressure in the line in an attempt to clear the “blockage”. Not taking the spill alarms seriously because they were attributed to a non-serious, business-as-usual event constitutes a normalization of deviance.

It’s no secret that oil pipelines such as Northern Gateway, Keystone XL, and a proposed west-to-east pipeline to ports in Quebec constitute a major component of the energy strategy just agreed to by Canada’s premiers. But, as we debate the pros and cons of these future pipelines, whether or not there will be an oil spill as a result of human error should not be viewed as an open question as both opponents and proponents suggest. That there will be a spill from any one of these new pipelines being discussed is a certainty. The only questions are, when and where will they happen, how big will they be, and what—if anything—can be done to stop or rectify them?

Time will tell.


This article first appeared in The Hill Times.

What is a “national energy strategy”?

Canada’s premiers are 100% right: Canada clearly needs to develop a national energy strategy. But where the premiers are 100% wrong is in how they define what a national energy strategy is.

Unlike most efforts now under way in Canada, a national energy strategy is not about exploiting the country’s vast resource riches. A national energy strategy is not about promoting specific actions, such as developing the oil sands or pipelines. It’s not even about expanding development of renewable energy sources or advancing efficiency standards. Overall, an energy strategy is not about what can be done or – in the eyes of some observers – should be done.

Instead, an energy strategy is a long-term and adaptive framework for guiding decisions about energy development and delivery. It is a deliberative process that encourages involvement from all key stakeholders and gives each a legitimate role in addressing the tradeoffs that are key to the decisions at hand. It is a way to organize information and dialogue about energy options and consequences. And it is a way to structure choices about energy in a manner that facilitates, and more efficiently incorporates, learning over time.

A good analogy for an energy strategy is that of an individual’s financial investments. Different people have different objectives and tolerances for risks. So it makes sense that investment strategies will differ across individuals. Likewise, an individual’s investment strategy is sure to change over time. It’s perfectly normal, because of a wide variety of internal and external factors, that a target for investment today may not necessarily be one tomorrow.

When it comes to a national energy strategy, take the people in the example above and replace them with provinces. Now, take the targets for financial investments (e.g., stocks and mutual funds) and replace them with elements of a national energy portfolio (e.g., oil and gas, hydro, renewables, efficiency upgrades, etc.).

Just like the support a financial planner gives to clients, an energy strategy is also specific to the objectives of the decision makers. An effective energy strategy should inform choices about the desired level of investment in each element of an energy portfolio, where these investments should be made geographically across Canada, and the signals or tipping points that will trigger reallocation of funds and attention from one resource to another over time. Likewise, a carefully crafted energy strategy will help people – policymakers and public alike – to ask and answer questions about the level of risk and uncertainty that they are willing to tolerate.

In the end, what will truly differentiate Canada as a world leader when it comes to developing a national energy strategy is the recognition that a focus on a single energy development approach – or even a bundle of approaches – at a single point in time is not the answer.

Moreover, a successful and transformative made-in-Canada energy strategy will be one that goes well beyond simply providing a menu of energy-related offerings (which, incidentally is what today’s “national energy strategy” actually is).

Instead, the real need when we talk about a national energy strategy is to provide people with a mechanism for making a series of difficult and interrelated choices over time. Only through this kind of approach will the country begin to move past the stalemate that arises when ideology trumps ideas and analysis. Viewed in this light, the real product of a national energy strategy is not a particular outcome. It is a more sensible, credible and defensible decision-making process.


This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.