|dc.description.abstract||This study investigates practices of uncertainty consideration, avoidance, and disclosure in Canadian environmental assessment (EA), namely within the context of social, political, economic, and/or environmental project conditions surrounding the Joslyn North Oil Sands Mine development project in northeastern Alberta. Since EA is used to predict future impacts, some uncertainty is inherent and unavoidable; however, uncertainty is not always considered or communicated. To investigate how contextual dynamics influence uncertainty consideration and acknowledgement in Canadian EA, stakeholder views on were explored using semi-structured interviews. Nineteen interviews were performed with key project informants including practitioners, reviewers, panel members, interveners, and consultants.
Results indicate there are significant uncertainties about the project emanating from both the environmental impact statement and wider regulatory process. Factors contributing to uncertainty specific to the ‘internal’ EA process include: varying perspectives among those involved in the EA; language used in the assessment and the dissemination of information; use of professional judgment in lieu of sufficient data; the lack of complete baseline data, and unclear terms of reference. Aspects of the assessment that people were most uncertain about were: cumulative effects assessment; species at risk; critical habitat; and setback distances (i.e., wildlife buffers) and corridors around the Ells River Valley. ‘External’ factors contributing to uncertainties in the Joslyn North mine case include a generally low level of confidence in the Alberta EA approval system; deficiency of integrating TEK in assessments; policy limitations (i.e., jurisdictional restrictions for reviewer inquiry); the absence of measureable thresholds and criteria in monitoring and mitigation plans; and concerns about the relationship among the federal and provincial regulating bodies and industry.
Contextual factors such as the dynamics of the stakeholder relationships (i.e., change in project operators) heavily influenced uncertainty disclosure, consideration, and avoidance practices in the Joslyn North case. Research yielded that much of the uncertainty was indeed disclosed, but at times downplayed, and addressing or truly considering uncertainties was avoided so projects appear to be socially, environmentally and politically palatable. Recommendations to improve uncertainty communication are provided to support better decision-making in EA. These include the following: developing a common understanding of the main project uncertainties within the realm of the EA system, and therefore able to be influenced though the EA process; creating and using measurable criteria to better prioritize uncertainties; bringing uncertainty communication to the forefront of the EA and regulatory process dialogues; and working toward closing information and knowledge gaps by pinpointing major and/or commonly held uncertainties and tackling these before addressing other uncertainties. An idea presenting the locus of uncertainty to help address internal sources of uncertainty with in EA stakeholder influence is presented.||