This is public consultation?

When browsing twitter last week, I came across the following post:

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 11.06.24 PM

That’s right- DFO is seeking public consultation on (some of) the changes to the Fisheries Act. For those interested, the link to the changes (and instructions on how to comment- there’s a process, not surprisingly) is here:

http://gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p1/2013/2013-04-13/html/reg1-eng.html#reg

Great, consultation. This is a good thing. So, I thought I’d check the DFO website to see where it was advertizing the fact that it was looking for consultation:

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 11.17.58 PM

Hmm- nope, just Economic Action Plan ads. Okay, it must be under the news section- the notice for publication was made on April 13th, so there’s probably a news release to let people know that it’s available for comment:

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 11.22.38 PM

Okay, nothing there for April 13th, and no earlier announcements (you can check the site yourself to verify: http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/media/news-presse-eng.htm).

Maybe an oversight then. Surely, it’s on the DFO twitter feed- after all, this is what social media is for, right? Interaction and engagement with an audience. Let’s see:

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 11.40.33 PM

Hunh. So all this news clearly overwhelmed DFO’s communication staff around the 13th of April, and besides, it’s only asking for public consultation on the Fisheries Act, which essentially guides how the department operates on a day-to-day basis. Nothing as important as talking about how to age cod.

Hold on- let’s go back to the Gazette page for a second:

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada is communicating with stakeholders to raise awareness of this regulatory proposal and to inform stakeholders of the comment period afforded through prepublication of the proposed Regulations in Part Ⅰ of the Canada Gazette. Potential revisions to the proposed Regulations will be made based on comments received during the 30-day comment period.”

Oh- I see. Publication in the Gazette IS the notification. Because everyone I know reads the Canada Gazette regularly (clearly, it’s something we should probably be doing more often). Interestingly, there’s all kinds of amendments where consultation is currently being sought, by the Department of Environment, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, and Parks Canada, to name a few.

Okay, so if you’re interested in making comments, note the following (also from the Canada Gazette page):

“Interested persons may make representations concerning the proposed Regulations within 30 days after the date of publication of this notice [April 13, 2013]. All such representations must cite the Canada Gazette, Part Ⅰ, and the date of publication of this notice, and be addressed to Ray O’Flaherty, Legislation and Regulatory Affairs, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 200 Kent Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0E6 (tel.: 613-993-0982; fax: 613-993-5204; email: FPR-RPP@dfo-mpo.gc.ca).”

So, if you don’t cite the Canada Gazetter, the date of publication, AND address it to Ray, they have every right to toss your comments in the trash. Be warned.

And in case you’re not going to read all these particular posted changes, the main issue they are seeking consultation on is review times for proponents who are undergoing “development” that has the potential to be harmful to fish. The proposed timelines are 60 days to notify the proponent that their application is complete and no additional information is required, and then 90 days from the time of notification that applications are complete to either authorize or refuse the proposed work. 5 months total. That should be pretty simple, since the department just cut 130 positions from the habitat program (the folks doing these reviews) and plans to absorb another $100 million in cuts over the next 3 years. This, despite recent work showing that review times on habitat authorizations weren’t taking very long before these changes.

If you think these proposed timelines are as fishy as they sound, I would encourage you to submit your comments to Mr. O’Flaherty.

And take note- you may need to actually work really hard as a member of the public to find out you’re being consulted with by the current government.

One order of Government policy, hold the science

Emperor

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s scientists that have shown that the emperor has no clothes. A recent U of T study has shown that Government justification for new environmental legislation is unfounded.

In a recent post, I discussed a paper by Jake Rice (DFO scientist) that outlined the role of science in contributing to government policy. In it, he warns of the risks of making policy that ignores science advice. The details are in the post, but the basic idea is that if you want to form policy that ignores science, expect to be called out on it.

That’s exactly what’s happened this week in a paper published by researchers from the University of Toronto. But first, some back story for context.

When the government released sweeping changes to environmental legislation in bill C-38 last year, particularly, changes to the Fisheries Act and totally re-writing the Environmental Assessment Act, the excuse used to do so was that environmental reviews took too long- so long that investors were frustrated with the process and choosing to seek development elsewhere. Government ministers, like Joe Oliver, spoke at length to give this impression– environmental reviews were lengthy and cumbersome. To quote ol’ Joe, from a development approval announcement in 2011:

“I think the regulatory process should be completed within a reasonable amount of time and that time should be a couple of years.” – Joe Oliver, Federal Minister of Natural Resources

The quote appeared relevant for the particular announcement, which had taken quite a bit longer (6 years in that particular case). However, the way the “need” for a change in the approval process was being sold was that this was the norm- why would anyone invest if it takes 6 years to approve a project? Industry complaints repeated frequently in the media that the approval process was too lengthy helped solidify the impression- environmental review was slow and cumbersome, and limiting investment. And, the government presented their own “data” on the topic- see the handful of anecdotal examples presented on page 89 of this document and in this committee report.

What wasn’t clear at the time was that these were just “impressions”- no one had actually measured how long environmental reviews actually took; that is, look at all the data on time to review and ask what the actual time to approval was. Instead, the government took industry’s word for it, and, based on a few examples, completely overhauled environmental legislation across the board, with the goal of reducing environmental review times to between 1-2 years.

In their recent study, Dak de Kerckhove, a PhD candidate in U of T’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, along with faculty members Dr. Brian Shuter and Dr. Ken Minns (a retired DFO scientist) demonstrated from a review of actual data on environmental reviews between 2001 and 2011 found that:

“The majority of submissions were processed within 1 year for mitigated impacts and within 2 years for authorized impacts.”

Exactly the targets that ol’ Joe said the changes were supposed to put in place.

To review: the Canadian government made sweeping changes to environmental legislation based on industry complaints (not a scientific examination of the data), in order to set targets for review times that it was already meeting under the old legislation.

That’s what you get when you base policy on impressions instead of evidence.

Further, the authors provide some evidence that these times were shorter than similar reviews in the US, which take between 3-8 years (though the authors are quick to point out that data with which to compare are sparse). They then go on to make some recommendations for how to streamline the process without weakening environmental oversight.

To conclude, the authors make two key statements:

1. “Inordinately long review times may be a misperception based on a minority of cases, and thus the recent environmental policy changes in Canada may have little effect on the pace of economic growth.”

And,

2. “While our study provides the first estimate of review times with publically available data, we encourage the federal government to refine our estimate with the more detailed information of individual referrals at their disposal and use a strong evidence-based approach when designing federal environmental policy.”

What else can I say when they’ve already said it all.

I invite you to read the paper yourself (it’s open access, just click on the .pdf link) and check out the press release. You can also hear the U of T student speak for himself on CBC’s “As It Happens”, broadcast April 3rd 2013.