Expertise vs. bias

July 10, 2017
Very few people immerse themselves in reservoir engineering for reasons other than to make a living. Study groups do not form to help amateur enthusiasts deepen their knowledge of catalytic cracking.

Very few people immerse themselves in reservoir engineering for reasons other than to make a living. Study groups do not form to help amateur enthusiasts deepen their knowledge of catalytic cracking. Not many groups outside the pipeline industry schedules bus tours to pig traps. The oil and gas business relies on equipment, processes, skills, and knowledge of little or no interest outside the industry. Technical peculiarity makes oil and gas expertise unaccompanied by industry experience rare and sometimes suspect.

In the US and Canada, however, the assumptions persist that industry experience implies bias and that expertise needed for effective regulation abounds in exterior realms. Industry experience in this view is a taint, disqualifying to prospective regulators and corrupting to regulators who consult it. This is an intellectual trap.

'Regulatory rollback'

A July 2 article in the New York Times, for example, notes US Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt has met frequently with industry groups during his 4 months in office while pressing "a regulatory rollback larger in scope than any other over so short a time in the agency's 47-year history." The article doesn't point out that Pruitt is pulling EPA back from 8 years of regulatory frenzy.

"Pruitt's main source of counsel on industry regulations appears to be the industries he regulates," the article observes, lamenting later that the administrator has held "few meetings with career employees or environmental groups." That comparison makes the "rollback" sound like a special-interest takeover of EPA-evidently the article's intended impression. In fact, the EPA-notwithstanding the knowledgeable and dedicated professionals it no doubt employs-squandered its credibility when, during Barack Obama's presidency, it regulated as though exempt from constitutional constraint. Where was the Times when the agency acted like a wholly owned subsidiary of the environmental lobby?

Counsel of the oil and gas industry and other targets of the previously dictatorial EPA is precisely what the agency needs.

In Canada, aversion to input from the oil and gas industry appears in recent recommendations for overhauling the National Energy Board from a panel appointed by the Liberal federal government. As regulator of interprovincial and international oil and gas pipelines, the NEB has become a forum of contention. Environmental groups increasingly try to block pipeline construction as a way to limit the production and use of oil and gas. Amplifying controversy is the government's pursuit of ambitious targets for greenhouse gas emissions and cautious indulgence of new, economically essential pipelines.

The challenge of balancing these interests is evident in the NEB report, which recommends replacing the board with an entity called the Canadian Energy Transmission Commission and divesting informational functions to a new, independent Canadian Energy Information Agency. The commission would attempt to weigh pipeline considerations against broad energy goals of the federal government, such as responding to climate change, better than the panel says NEB has been able to do. And its membership would address a worry expressed in public comments.

'Captured' by industry

"We heard that Canadians have serious concerns that the NEB has been 'captured' by the oil and gas industry, with many board members who come from the industry that the NEB regulates, and who-at the very least appear to-have an innate bias toward that industry," the panel reported. "Canadians told us that, while energy industry expertise is critical, they expect to see NEB board members who represent a broader cross-section of Canada and wider scope of knowledge and experience, particularly Indigenous knowledge, regional understanding, and climate science."

The Times article and NEB report raise a legitimate concern. Regulators do need distance from the industries they regulate. Because they also need expertise often unavailable elsewhere, distance shouldn't become divorce. Only industry opponents favor regulation by endless conflict. In the US, they're losing. That the same cannot be said for Canada is evident in the NEB panel's proposal for two-step approval of major projects in a process requiring at least 3 years.