Write the Rules and Roll Out the Barrels

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, May 14, 2004

The potential benefit of exploring and developing B.C.'s offshore oil and gas resources cannot be understated. According to a report by The Royal Society, the Queen Charlotte Basin has a reserve of 9.8 billion barrels of oil, and 25.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. At $US 30 per barrel, the oil in the Queen Charlotte Basin would amount to C$50billion. The natural gas would bring in a similar amount - the Royal Society estimated its value at nearly $C60 billion.

Development of the Queen Charlotte Basin would clearly represent a boon to the British Columbian economy, and would generate a considerable amount of revenue to allow the province to tend to various needs such as decaying infrastructure or reducing the tax burden on British Columbians.

Alarmist groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation would argue that British Columbia should simply forego such economic benefits out of a fear that exploration and development of fossil fuel resources in the Queen Charlotte Basin poses a threat of oil spills and natural gas releases. But this is unlikely. As The Fraser Institute's Sixth Edition of Environmental Indicators shows, oil spills around the globe have declined in both number and size of spills. After examining the various risks of energy exploration in the Queen Charlotte Basin, the Royal Society report concluded that Providing an adequate regulatory regime is put in place, there are no science gaps that need to be filled before lifting the moratoria on oil and gas development.

With the report of the Royal Society, there can be no reason other than unsupported fear to maintain the moratorium on exploration and development of fossil fuel resources in the Queen Charlotte Basin. Though alarmists argue that The Precautionary Principle warrants acting out of fear in the absence of evidence, the unsuitability of this approach to public policy is well documented. First, by insisting on proof of harmlessness, the principle sets up conditions requiring the proof of a negative - an inherently impossible proposition. Second, the principle is fundamentally hypocritical: the requirement to prove the absence of risk only applies to someone who wants to produce something, not people who want to regulate it, or deprive others of its benefits. Finally, the precautionary principle inherently favors regulation: putting a rule in place is mandated if any risk is claimed, however scientifically uncertain the claim. Since both risk and uncertainty are always present, a precautionary regulation will always be warranted under the principle. But the precautionary principle will almost always prevent taking a regulation off the books, as it insists on absolute certainty of safety, an unachievable standard of knowledge in any walk of life.

The people of British Columbia would profit immensely from the development of B.C.'s offshore fossil fuel potential, and the report of the Royal Society should clear the way for exploration, with, as the Royal Society explains, an adequate regulatory regime that would protect the scenic beauty of the British Columbia coast, along with the value that it represents as a tourist destination, and a source of ecosystem services.


Jeremy Brown et al., (2004). Environmental Indicators, Sixth Edition. Vancouver: The Fraser Institute.

The Royal Society of Canada (2004). Report of the Expert Panel on Science Issues Related to Oil and Gas Activities, Offshore British Columbia.
Ottawa, Ontario: The Royal Society. 

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