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Web Exclusive: Extended Interview with David Schindler

An extended interview with David Schindler on Environmental Assessment, the tar sands and more.

Read the first half of the interview that was published in In Defence of Science.

Stephen Bocking: Would you say that this is the most critical period in environmental protection, at least going back to the 1960s?

Read the first half of the interview that was published in In Defence of Science.

Stephen Bocking: Would you say that this is the most critical period in environmental protection, at least going back to the 1960s?

David Schindler: Yes, I would say so. In the last few years, the Canadian government has reversed many of the advances made in the last several decades, including weakening of the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Process. Meanwhile, I’ve seen the US moving in the other direction. Back in the 60s, they didn’t even have an environmental protection agency. Since then, the EPA was founded and has turned out to be a pretty solid organization. They also have a species at risk act which is a very good, clear and unchallengeable law – one that can’t be beaten right from the start, as compared to the weak one that we have, which is fraught with ministerial discretion and, for anything but federal lands, completely lacks habitat protection. Most species at risk are listed because of damage to their habitats. On top of that, at a time when our current government has been suppressing communication of its scientists with the media and Canadian public, the US has lifted muzzling of its federal scientists. It’s bizarre.

SB: Right. My sense is that the Obama administration has done a fair amount of damage repair after the Bush administration, so they’re moving in one direction and Canada’s moving in the opposite direction.

DS: I think that’s fair to say. I think part of the reason is that Obama has some very good scientific advisors. His own personal science advisor, John Holdren, is well known as being a stellar environmental scientist; physics nobelist Steven Chu is the Secretary of Energy; Jane Lubchenco at NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] is a very well known ecologist. On this side of the border, there seems to be a move to discount environmental science of any sort as some sort of radical environmentalism.

SB: Yes, if you think about things like the proposed changes to the census, there seems to be a general desire to remove empirical information from the policy process. Would you say that’s true?

DS: I would say it is, and it’s not only at present that we’re going to suffer, but in the future. The lack of current information is going to hinder our ability to see what species are in decline in the future, and how species are affected by climate change. It’s going to leave a huge hole in our long-term databases, and it’s going to leave even the well-intentioned future policy-makers without critical data that are necessary to make informed decisions.

SB: You’ve also been vocal about the role of environmental regulation in Alberta. Are there any general comments you’d like to add about the role of the provinces in environmental monitoring and regulation?

DS: We’ve had successive cuts to departments of environment at both the federal and provincial levels going back 30 years. How is it that we have industrial development, which here in Alberta is increasing at an average rate of seven-and-a-half per cent per year, compounded, and yet all of our environment departments get successive cuts, year after year? I don’t think in anyone’s mind that equation allows us to be able to assess – let alone protect – the environment.

I also look at Alberta Environment and there’s scarcely a PhD on their staff. Their Athabasca River program was $300,000 two years ago – at least that’s what I’m told by the fellow who headed it, who’s now gone – and, meanwhile, the province just out of the blue put up $25-million to propagandize the oil sands. Those numbers are so out of balance that I don’t think there’s any hope of reasonable environmental protection at present at all.

SB: What would you say about Environment Canada’s capacity to fill the role that some provinces aren’t, given how its scientific capacities have been reduced in recent years?

DS: More than a decade ago, I was a member of Environment Canada’s science advisory panel for three years. It was a good panel, and during 1999-2000, the group of us reviewed the capacity of the department. We found that it had already dropped by half in 10 years. The then-Deputy Minister got very excited about that, and directed his senior scientists to prepare a submission to the Treasury Board in 2001 to reinvigorate the department. We all know what happened to all of the federal money in 2001 – I think of it every time I go through an airport screening. If the Taliban has won a major victory, it’s at the expense of the Canadian environment.

There’s been no effort under either party that’s been in power since then to resurrect the Department of Environment in any way, so it was already a department becoming very weak when Harper became Prime Minister. There are still some good scientists there today, but most of them are going to be retiring in a few years, and I doubt they’ll be replaced. If I’ve read the language correctly from the announcements made this year, it’s not going to be a department that does science at all. It’ll probably just hand out glossy pamphlets that will promote the environmental agenda of whoever happens to be Prime Minister or Minister of Environment at the time. George Orwell would be pleased that his predictions of how government can obfuscate information were so accurate, though it took a bit longer than 1984…

SB: You’ve also called for a more moderate approach to developing the oil sands. Could you describe what that moderate approach might look like?

DS: I think that the inexpensive and responsible way to develop the oil sands would be to develop at a rate that would keep the skilled labour force of Alberta employed without needing to take in massive immigration from other provinces or countries. That way, we wouldn’t have to worry about building more roads, schools and hospitals, because you would have the capacity to deal with the number of people. And because you would deal with skilled labour and the capacity of existing businesses that make oil sands machinery, we wouldn’t have the present mad cost inflation. We’re really pricing ourselves out of a lucrative business with this rush to get everything out of the ground at once, and adding to the cost by having to build infrastructure at the same time.

If they could count on an annual growth rate of two or three per cent, most politicians I know would be very content, and they should be able to run a very prosperous province on that amount of money. If they need more capacity than that, the logical way to do it would be to develop other industries to use the oil, rather than trying to put in all the pipelines to ship it somewhere else, where others get the secondary and tertiary benefits. Other countries want the bitumen because they can use it make products and sell them back to us. Why don’t we set up some ability to produce those things we need here? We could start some light industries that don’t need to mow down trees and otherwise damage the environment, and get more value added by employing skilled people and using our own oil to make and sell products, rather than those secondary and tertiary profits going to other countries.

Our mad rush really just reinforces the old image of Canadians as simpleton hewers of wood and drawers of water. It appears that’s the only vision our leaders have for us.

SB: Earlier this year the Alberta government announced the oil sands technology and research authority. Do you think that could have a useful or effective contribution?

DS: It could, if they would put the right kind of people in it. But, as things go, boards like that tend to be dominated by ex-oil company CEOs and petrochemical toadies.

For example, a number of years ago the provincial government started an Alberta Water Research Institute. They put it under the direction of an unusually forward-looking former minister of environment, who put together a board of outstanding water experts from around the world to advise the program. They formed an international review panel, which I headed, to ensure that research money went to the best water projects proposed. The philosophy was, “Get the best people that you can,” so we did. By the third-year review, people were saying, “Wow, has this research capacity ever developed rapidly.” Outsiders were calling the program “world-class,” which is usually a term that you only hear applied to provincial agencies by Alberta politicians. But, at that point, politicians cut the whole program, disbanded the board and the review committee, and turned the program into a section of Alberta Ingenuity, which is under the direction of a bunch of oil guys, rather than anyone with any sense of what needs to be done to protect water in the province. It’s like there’s only one thing on people’s minds – money; Alberta truly is a petro-state.

SB: Do you have any other general comments you’d like to make about the oil sands, or about environmental regulation and policy-making in Alberta?

DS: When I moved here 23 years ago, it was a shock. I was used to governments that were eager to change practices that were destroying the environment. Here, all they want to do is shovel them under the rug. As former Premier Ralph Klein famously exclaimed when mad cow disease was discovered in Alberta herds, farmers should “shoot, shovel and shut up.” That attitude really hasn’t changed much over the years. It would get a little bit better with some ministers of environment and some premiers, and then a bit worse with others, but the bottom line is visible when you look at how rapidly development has been pursued at all costs.

Alberta politicians can’t ever see that they’re making a mistake. There always has to be a new silver bullet that can make lots of money, and no other criterion seems to be considered.

The other thing that drives me crazy is that they don’t stabilize anything. Everything depends on recent oil revenues, so they treat doctors, nurses and university professors like ditch-diggers: if the province is short of money, it fires them. The mentality is, ‘Well, when we’re rich again, then we can have a two-week training course and we’ll have them all back.’ This short-term planning does not work well for people who must invest a decade and more in their education. Nobody looks back and says, ‘Hey, we did that last time and it didn’t work, maybe we’d better try something better.’ It’s like there’s no sense of history at all here. It’s the most sophomoric system of government I’ve seen anywhere. As a result, the medical and educational systems are in chaos.

SB: Okay, so switching channels a bit, I’d be really interested to chat about your involvement in the history of environmental science, starting with the Experimental Lakes Area. Could you summarize what you see as the essential and unique contribution that the ELA has made to our environmental knowledge over the last few decades?

DS: I think the big thing is that, in several key experiments, we exposed the fact that there are large, important ecosystem processes that change only very slowly when ecosystems are stressed by humans. These need to be taken into account in managing whole ecosystems. Such processes cannot be estimated using little bottles and mesocosms – you have to study them at full-scale in ecosystems. That being said, there was a companion project run by two of the people at the Freshwater Institute, Everett Fee and Bob Hecky, on a range of lakes just like the ones at ELA, except they were scaled up in size – all the way up to the size of Lake Superior. They showed that small ecosystems have all the important scales represented, but the processes change in intensity with ecosystem size. There are predictable scaling-up factors that you can use to extrapolate from small to larger ecosystems, but smaller than ecosystem scales do not yield science that is a reliable basis for policy. Those studies, together with the ability to do experiments at whole-lake scales, make ELA a critical facility.

The vision for ELA was not mine; it came from the founding director of the Freshwater Institute, Wally Johnson. He got the idea when he was a student working in Wisconsin with a fisheries scientist named Art Hasler, who had separated two dark-water lakes and limed one side to make it clearer, to see if that would increase the productivity of bass. Johnson was so impressed by how convincing such large-scale work was that he decided it had to be a part of his new Freshwater Institute.

His idea was to go dump a few bags of nutrients in a lake and see what happens. In the early years, he and I used to have some pretty ferocious squabbles because I wanted to do detailed biogeochemistry, productivity studies, nutrient cycling studies and that sort of thing. Fortunately, we had an intermediate who could understand what we were both saying and acted as peacemaker: Jack Vallentyne.

Early on, I just did straight science at the ELA. I didn’t do any public communication. All of that was done by Vallentyne. Those days seemed magical. Our first and only mandate was to do eutrophication experiments related to the Great Lakes. Vallentyne would take our most recent results and go off and talk to the International Joint Commission, without having to check what he said with politicians or bureaucrats. It took about three years to turn our results into legislation to protect the Great Lakes from nutrients, with government being receptive every step of the way.

The US was not that receptive. They didn’t have an Environmental Protection Agency until 1973, and even then it was weak and understaffed, so they decided to let every state make its own decision on nutrients. It took 17 years for all of them to control phosphorus inputs to the Great Lakes.

Meanwhile, on this side of the border, all the constitutional nonsense was taking place and a lot of environmental responsibility that had formerly been handled federally was delegated to the provinces. The Fisheries Research Board, which had previously done and reported science without any political spin, was disbanded, and its staff was rolled into the Department of Environment, then the department of Fisheries and Oceans. At that point, looking at the long chain of bureaucrats who were going to descend on us, Vallentyne left. Before he left, he called me into his office and said, “Look, this communication to policymakers is really important. I’m not going to be here to do it, so you’ve got to do it.” At that point I was pretty unwilling, but I got thrown into a series of US state hearings and western provincial hearings, and then the acid rain hearings. It just became part of my job.

After the eutrophication work had been completed, the government actually wanted to disband the ELA. Once we became part of the federal civil service, the new regime wanted to get rid of some science programs because they had bureaucratic needs, such as appearances and propaganda dissemination. Instead of five-and-a-half floors of scientists and a few administrators in our building, they soon had two floors full of administrators. I understand bureaucracy now occupies four floors out of six.

Anyway, they had called ELA a “sunset program,” and said they didn’t need us anymore. So that’s when I started looking for acid rain money. I had a young scientist working with me at ELA, Dick Beamish, who had done his thesis on acid rain in Ontario, and I had friends doing acid rain work in Europe as well. It was easy to see that it was a real problem here, with highly acidifying emissions arriving from the USA and extremely acid sensitive lakes. Fisheries and Oceans initially wouldn’t fund acid rain research. When I made a presentation to senior management, one middle manager accused me of inventing the problem to keep the ELA alive.

SB: Inventing acid rain?

DS: Yeah.

SB: Wow, that’d be quite a trick.

DS: So I got money from the oil sands, which were just starting up. They knew they were going to be putting out a lot of sulfur emissions. They had a road-less area that would be very expensive to work in. Because their freshwater ecosystems had a lot of the same species that we did at ELA and their most sensitive lakes were like ours, I proposed that they could give us their money and we’d get a lot more bang for the buck. So they funded us for the first three years, when ELA was still with the Fisheries Research Board.

Later, during constitutional negotiations, it was decided that the Alberta oil sands environmental research program would be turned over to the province. So they disbanded that group too, and that was the end of the Fisheries Research Board and the end of our funding. But, by then, DFO could see that acid rain was a real problem. Senior bureaucrats were happy to claim that they were foresighted enough to have a program that had been studying the problem for four years at ELA! So the pariah program re-emerged as important. Talk about crazy sets of circumstances.

Funding to continue our work at the ELA was all soft money, so-called B-budget funding, and by 1989 we were pretty well at the end of that. Meanwhile, we had some long enough records that I was able to put together in papers describing how climate warming and fire affected ELA lakes and boreal watersheds. Otherwise, I was ready to get out of DFO – things were already going downhill rapidly, and I didn’t want to be part of that federal organization any longer. My wife and I ended up here in Edmonton because there were two positions available at the University of Alberta, and we were invited to fill them.

The ELA continued to produce research, mostly on money from American scientists and industrial partners after that. I continued to stay involved to some degree, first by sending graduate students there and getting involved in some of the projects. I still am involved in some of the long-term data interpretations, most recently because they don’t have enough scientists left who can do it.

SB: Really?

DS: Yeah, well, during the past three years, the last of the old technical people who I hired for ELA have retired, including some amazing individuals. One of them actually hadn’t even finished high school when he started working for me, and spent 40-some years there. By the end of that period he had produced more scientific papers than most of the PhDs at the Freshwater Institute. Another dedicated person who retired last year, had been there since 1968 doing the hydrology studies. Those were really irreplaceable people. ELA has recruited a few young scientists, but the federal salary scales and startup packages can’t compete with universities at all anymore, so if they get someone good, they’re very lucky.

SB: Right. And then hold onto them.

DS: Yea, and what they’ve been lacking recently, are scientists who have some sort of general limnological oversight. There’s a need for someone who can take a synthetic view of all of the pieces. When I was at ELA, I tried to write synthetic papers that didn’t undercut the publications that other scientists and technicians did themselves, instead taking an overview of things that they had never thought of. So for others, who were co-authors, it was more like icing on the cake rather than my stealing a piece of their cake. It’s hard to build that kind of trust with a staff – it takes years. But once they’re into it and they can see the power of doing it, they get very enthusiastic about it. A new scientist dealing with a new staff would have to start from scratch again to do that. Meanwhile, ELA has got huge new buildings and facilities that we could never even dream of having. Most of our work was done out of a bunch of rotten old trailers. But everything else, from money for research to sufficient staff to do ecosystem scale experiments is missing.

SB: I guess it can be a fragile thing for a place to have that kind of working atmosphere, where what different scientists are doing all adds up to more than the sum of the parts, rather than the scientists just going off and doing their own little specialties.

DS: Yes, and a lot of that was because we all ate together. Most of our ideas for new science were impromptu, developed at meals or morning coffee. Somebody would bring in some data, and there would be some argument about how it should be interpreted, how uncertainties could be resolved, and pretty soon there would be a new way of looking at it, or a new experiment devised to determine who was right. It was really a fantastic working environment – one not matched by universities, where everybody bustles around without time to think, and if you want to plan some new science you have to have a formal planning meeting and spend two days beating your head against the wall to force out a plan, whether you’re in the mood or not.

SB: Did you folks at the ELA have much interaction with the people at other big landscape-level experiments? I’m thinking, at Hubbard Brook, for example?

DS: Gene Likens, Herb Bormann and I have always been good friends. We would trade data and look at each other’s work, and I was part of the group consulted when responsibility for the Hubbard Brook project was moved to The Institute for Ecosystem Studies. The projects strongly supported each other, but collaboration between them just didn’t develop. In part, their focus was more on long-term monitoring, while ours was primarily on applied ecosystem experiments. What did develop at ELA, though, was a totally different sort of relationship with biogeochemists at Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, starting back when the theory was that you needed to control carbon to control eutrophication.

I invited Wally Broecker – the world-renowned oceanographer and gas exchange expert from Lamont – to come up to ELA to advise us on how to measure carbon exchange between lakes and the atmosphere. As it turned out he and several other eminent oceanographers were just launching the geochemical ocean sections program (GEOSECS), which was going to take several years. Wally was worried that his graduate students would get lost in that huge program and end up being a pair of hands on a ship somewhere so, for about five years, he sent them all to ELA to work on biogeochemical problems. It boosted our research funding because he’d get all the money for his part of research from the US National Science Foundation. In return, I’d go down and spend six weeks in the winter giving a short course in limnology for oceanography students at Lamont-Doherty.

While I was down there, we shared Wally’s office. He had a huge office, and we had two desks in there. We’d spend most of the day just sitting and arguing about interpretations of data and discussing what key experiments we should do next. It was tremendous fun brainstorming with him, because he was full of large-scale ideas on how to quantify chemical processes. Overall I think there were 14 or 15 PhDs from Lamont that came out of ELA, including people who are now in senior professorship positions all over the US and Canada.

SB: In terms of the ELA’s policy influence, I get the sense that a lot stemmed from its distinctive approach to whole lake experiments.

DS: I would say that. It also stemmed a lot from me, and in turn, from Jack Vallentyne, who was always more concerned about science-based policy than about nice academic publications that would fill the shelves of some ivory tower where policy makers would never see them. On the acid rain problem, I just continued doing what I’d been doing with the eutrophication science, but because the system had become more politicized, I increasingly got into trouble for communicating things the bureaucrats did not like. As a result, I got a couple of letters of reprimand. To me, a letter of reprimand for doing what you felt had to be done was not something to be ashamed of. To be effective, a democracy relies on well-informed citizens, not propagandized ones.

SB: Can you think of other organizations that are similar to the ELA in terms of their working environment?

DS: I think some elements of it are in places like Hubbard Brook and Dorset Field Station in Ontario, but probably not to the extreme degree that we had it at ELA. Even after we became part of the civil service, the attitude of most of our scientific and technical staff was, “Well, they’re not going to give us the money to do a key study, but they can’t stop us.” There were a lot of people who’d put in evenings and weekends to make something work despite lack of funding, just to spite the bureaucracy. We had a well-informed group, as the result of weekly seminars on a variety of projects going on at ELA. I also tried to make all of the participants in a project feel as if their part was important. If they believed it was scientifically important, they didn’t care whether the bureaucrats thought it was related to the department’s mandate or even whether they got overtime pay to do it. So they would just go out and do the necessary work. ELA became a world standard for performing “guerilla science,” building our own equipment and putting in our own time to get things done, if that is what it took.

SB: Wow. That’s fascinating. It’s sort of like a safe environment for being creative.

DS: That’s right.

SB: How does that compare to your experience working at university? You’ve played a role as a very productive scientist, but also as a contributor to public debate, and I’m curious about how that’s worked out as far as having an impact on your own position at the University of Alberta?

DS: Well, it’s worked out well because I came here as a senior scientist with tenure. I don’t think I would have been able to do it if I’d come here as a non-tenured new assistant professor, expected to recruit graduate students, raise money for research, design research and write several papers a year. There is simply not enough time to have a life. But, that being said, the University of Alberta has always been very supportive. I’m sure on some occasions the president must have been tearing his or her hair out because, well, it’s no secret that in the course of my tenure here, I’ve offended some of the industries that have been their big donors and the province’s most powerful politicians. But I have to give the U of A very high marks for following its tenure rules and its very strict rules about grants from industries, which include everything from big tobacco to oil sands. I also give a lot of credit to the Isaac Walton Killam Foundation, which has provided support far beyond my salary.

Read the first half of the interview that was published in In Defence of Science.

Stephen Bocking, a regular contributor to Alternatives, is professor at and chair of the Environmental and Resource Science/Studies Program at Trent University and author of A\J’s EcoLogic blog.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @BockingStephen or read his blog: Environment, History and Science.