Politics always trumps science

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's statement that science, not politics, will govern the fate of oil pipelines through B.C. raises the question: Whose science? Science means different things to different people.

If Harper's intention was to calm the debate over the Northern Gateway project that is proposed to transport diluted bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to Kitimat, it's not likely to succeed. It's tempting to see science as a solution to arriving at a decision on the pipeline -- after all, science is supposed to be reasoned, objective and dispassionate.

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But the prime minister's objectivity on the issue is suspect. It's clear he wants the project to go ahead.

"We think it's obviously in the vital interests of Canada and in the vital interests of British Columbia, as Canada's Asia-Pacific gateway ... to diversify our exports through this province," he has stated.

So when he says an independent panel will decide the issue based on scientific evidence, pardon us for thinking of the stereotypical Old West judge telling the accused: "We'll give you a fair trial before an impartial jury, and then we'll hang you."

It seems odd that the prime minister is prepared to place his faith in an independent panel when in April, his government took away the National Energy Board's ability to kill a project with a negative ruling.

It seems odd that Harper is looking to science to resolve the issue when his government has gutted environmental regulations and has muzzled federal scientists. Two examples: Dr. David Tarasick was barred from speaking to journalists about his ozone-layer research, and researcher Kristina Miller of Fisheries and Oceans Canada was prohibited from doing interviews about her study on the causes of sockeye salmon decline in B.C.

Science (other than the science of accounting) didn't reign when the federal government decided to close the Department of Fisheries and Oceans marine pollution program, including two research scientists, a chemist and six support staff at the Institute for Ocean Sciences in North Saanich.

Other scientific accomplishments for the Conservative government include abolishing the national science adviser position, shutting down the Experimental Lakes freshwater research station, eliminating the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, and scrapping the mandatory long-form census, immensely valuable for the wide range information it could have provided for generations to come.

But when it's useful to him, Harper can embrace science, it seems. The trouble is, scientific data can be used for political purposes, if it is spun in the right way. As William Shakespeare wrote: "The devil can cite scripture for his purpose."

What happens, though, when the scientific evidence is so overwhelming and clear that it can't be manipulated and twisted? Simple -- you ignore it.

Greater Victoria discharges its filtered sewage into the ocean, a practice that conventional wisdom says is harmful to the marine environment. But science has firmly established that the conditions -- temperature, currents and depth -- are ideal for this method, and that it is far less harmful, with a far smaller carbon footprint, than a land-based sewage treatment plant.

Yet the federal and provincial governments are imposing an expensive, hazardous, energy-consuming sewage system on the region because that's what is politically correct these days, and the facts be damned.

Science didn't decide that one, and science, the prime minister's assurances notwithstanding, is not likely to decide the future of the Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Experience tells us politics always trumps science.

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