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The following principles and priorities have evolved from our 30-plus years of analysis of the root causes of environmental destruction and the elements of a sustainable society.
We work to establish decentralized decision-making processes and to devolve decision making to the lowest practicable level – that which is closest to the affected individuals.
- In Thailand, along its swiftly flowing rivers, millions of people organized themselves under the 1000-year- old muang faai system that ensured all could use the rivers for their development, equitably and in perpetuity. This decentralized system that combined dam engineering, laws, and political institutions dissolved when the World Bank built large dams on the mainstem of local rivers, shifting control of the watersheds to the capital city of Bangkok, creating a free for all over the forests and the water, and leading to the demise of once thriving local economies. Probe International uses the example of muang faai in Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption, and the Third World’s Environmental Legacy, to explain how common resources can be managed for private and communal benefit (as Thai river communities did) or ruined, as happened when the Thai government centralized control. The demise of the muang faai system became our signature example of how management of a resource, be it environmental or financial, is destroyed: when the beneficiary and the victim are obscured by space, time, and loose accounting, and when those who have suffered are not the beneficiaries while those who have benefited are not the sufferers.
- As farms increase in size and intensity, agricultural pollution is gaining a new urgency across Canada. The response from most environmental groups and from upper levels of government is generally to push for more centralized regulation. The effect has often been to disempower individuals directly affected and communities – with the perverse result of more, rather than less, agricultural pollution. In Greener Pastures: Decentralizing the Regulation of Agricultural Pollution, Environment Probe examines the environmental harm caused by provincial regulation – especially right-to-farm laws – and advocates returning decision-making authority to the local level.
We strive to eliminate tragedies of the commons by advocating property rights where resources can be exclusive, divisible, and alienable.
- In these situations, we believe resources are most sustainably managed when users themselves own and manage them.
- Environment Probe’s fisheries work has focused on the need to create stronger property rights in fisheries. Conventional fisheries management regimes give political regulators incentives to promote over-fishing and give fishers themselves incentives to over-fish. In contrast, establishing secure, exclusive, perpetual, transferable rights to fisheries creates incentives to fish sustainably. Fisheries rights may take many forms. They may be individual or communal. They may be geographic – a fisher may have rights to a particular stretch of a river, or to a particular reef. For many fisheries, the most promising rights are ITQs – individual transferable quotas that give fishers the rights to specific shares of a catch.
We advocate property rights.
- To establish and preserve rights and responsibilities;
- To account fully for social and environmental costs based on the values assigned by the rights holders; and
- To internalize risks and costs (and to eliminate moral hazards2) in decision making.
- Probe International works to give river populations the right to say “no” to developers of hydro dams who want to flood their land to generate electricity revenues. With that right securely in their hands, they could set a price at which they would be prepared to lose their land and livelihood, thereby forcing dam developers to internalize the true costs of their energy development. Projects like the Three Gorges dam, which has forced some 1.4 million people to move – would almost certainly not proceed because they would be too expensive. Instead, less costly and innovative sources of power – smaller dams, high-efficiency gas turbines, clean coal – would be chosen and energy developments would soon reflect the values that citizens place on their environments.
We favour court actions based on the common law of nuisance, trespass, and riparian rights to empower individuals to protect themselves from environmental harm.
- We do not believe that governments should have the discretion to negotiate with polluters, or with other parties, to override traditional common law protections.
- Citizens have long used their common-law property rights to protect their environment against corporate and government polluters. The government’s response: to disempower the populace by authorizing pollution that property rights would have prevented, and even to pass laws overriding court decisions against polluters – all on the grounds that a greater, so-called national interest required the polluting activities. With the publication of Property Rights in the Defence of Nature, with chapters about property rights in 13 other books, with articles in the popular press, and with presentations to conferences and classrooms in five countries, Environment Probe has worked tirelessly to restore property rights, so that individuals and communities will become empowered with means to protect the environment.
- Canada’s export credit agency, Export Development Canada, is legally immune from judicial review of environmental damage caused by its loans and from disclosing its use of Canadian tax dollars, thereby forcing taxpayers to become unwilling investors in environmentally egregious and risky projects like the nuclear power stations in Romania, dams in Chile, and gold mines in Kyrgyzstan. Probe International took this case to a Senate Committee during hearings into EDC’s governing legislation, leading to an unprecedented Parliamentary debate.
We generally oppose expropriation, which often results in environmental harm.
- We believe that voluntary agreements more fully internalize costs, protect the environment, and ensure economic efficiency.
- Probe International also cautions environmentalists in other countries where citizens hope that environmental impact assessments will give them the tools to stop environmentally dangerous projects. Unfortunately, the experience in Canada proves the opposite. EIAs presume the government’s right to allocate any resource, and take anyone’s land, subject to the completion of an EIA. As long as the property rights of citizens are not enshrined and enforced, EIAs legitimize the right of project proponents to threaten others. They are also inherently anti-democratic because they undermine the right of citizens to say “no” to development that harms their interests and the environment upon which they depend.
- For example, because the Chinese people have no legal claim to the land they live on or the rivers they use for their livelihoods (nor are courts available for seeking redress), the Chinese government can, and does, forcibly resettle people by the millions for this and that so-called “development” plan. But the uncompensated losses incurred by Chinese citizens are real, making them, and the Chinese economy as a whole, poorer as a result of unrestrained government expropriation.
Where property rights cannot easily or affordably be assigned or enforced, we strive to eliminate tragic commons through statutory law and regulation.
- Where regulation is required, regulatory authority must be independent and provide all affected individuals and groups due process and access to information, while avoiding creating barriers to entry, stifling innovation, interrupting the flow of information, or forcing regulated parties to act against their best judgement.
- Energy Probe has intervened before the Ontario Energy Board over the course of three decades, helping to lower costs for consumers as well as institute landmark reforms. Among the innovations introduced by Energy Probe: reform of the natural gas industry to allow small consumers to share in the benefits of deregulation and incentive regulation and to give both public and private utilities an incentive to lower their costs.
- In May 2000, contaminated water killed seven people and sickened 2,300 in Walkerton, Ontario. Probe participated extensively in the public inquiry established to examine the causes of the tragedy and, more generally, the safety of drinking water in Ontario. Over the course of the two-year inquiry, we cross-examined witnesses, participated in expert meetings, and made submissions on environmental and economic regulation, enforcement, source protection, agricultural pollution, incentive structures, accountability mechanisms, and the operation and financing of water utilities.
We work to ensure the integrity of regulatory systems and the strict enforcement of laws that penalize unauthorized pollution.
- To eliminate biases and conflicts of interest, and to ensure that public- and private-sector polluters are treated equally, we advocate independent regulators, who are subject to due process and judicial review, and regulatory processes that require full disclosure of information.
- Municipal water and wastewater systems are failing Canadians. Regulators – paralyzed by the conflicts of interest that result when the same parties finance, operate, and regulate utilities – are refusing to enforce laws protecting public health and the environment. To ensure safe drinking water and effective sewage treatment, Environment Probe is calling for stricter government regulation (both environmental and economic) and for greater private funding and operation of utilities. The organization has promoted the privatization and regulation of water utilities in a number of forums, including the Walkerton Inquiry, which funded an extensive study of the issue. The Panel on the Future Role of Government in Ontario also commissioned a paper on the issue from the organization. Environment Probe’s book, Liquid Assets: Privatizing and Regulating Canada’s Water Utilities, was short-listed for the 2002/2003 Donner Prize, an award for the best public policy book in Canada.
- To hold Canadian engineers accountable for upholding their professionally regulated duties to protect life and property, Probe International has filed complaints against engineering firms for their feasibility studies for the Three Gorges dam in China and the Chalillo dam in Belize. Our predictions of environmental harm, unanticipated costs, and poor performance came true, once the dams were built. In the southern African country of Lesotho, we wrote about the pathbreaking corruption case against Canadian engineering giant, Acres International, which was convicted of bribing an African dam official in order to get contracts and cost overruns, arguing that Acres should be debarred from receiving future World Bank contracts. Acres was debarred, and after running into financial difficulties, Acres was soon bought out, bringing to an end the long and illustrious record of Canada’s most venerable engineering firm.
We argue for the break up of unnatural monopolies, created by political or regulatory decree.
- Where natural monopolies exist, we advocate regulation that is mandated to protect the interests of consumers.
- A competitive electricity supply sector with equitable access to regulated grids gives consumers choice and leads to a more reliable and cost effective, decentralized power system. Probe advocates this at home and abroad. In the Mekong region, our analysis has been adopted by grassroots environmental and civil rights groups as they campaign to save their vital watershed from being dammed.
We oppose subsidies to resource use.
- Resource subsidies encourage waste, often directly promote environmental harm, and, as a tool for delivering political favours to select constituencies, promote the abuse of power. Where society favours subsidies to ensure social equity, we favour subsidizing disadvantaged people with direct payments, untied to their level of consumption, rather than providing subsidies that lower the apparent cost of resources.
- In some regions of Canada, water is becoming increasingly scarce. And across the country, water and wastewater systems are undersized and in need of repair. Because Canadians pay so little for water, they have few incentives to conserve, and utilities have insufficient funds to improve their infrastructure. Environment Probe is campaigning to promote full-cost pricing to protect public health and the environment.
- Probe International, working with Chinese environmental groups, published the seminal report on Beijing’s crippling water crisis on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Pollution and dams have destroyed Beijing’s traditional river system forcing the city to drain its aquifers faster than they can be recharged. Meanwhile, low water prices perpetuate the waste of water by car washes and ski hills with artificial snowmaking machines while discouraging efficiency improvements and recycling. Chinese environmentalists now advocate market mechanisms – prices and tradable water rights – as a solution to the dire water shortage China’s capital city faces.
We oppose the socialization of private costs and risks through government subsidies and indemnities.
- Because the risks of a nuclear accident were too high for insurance companies to insure, and because the companies in the nuclear industry refused to put their companies at risk of bankruptcy by self-insuring, governments stepped in to relieve the nuclear industry of liability. Energy Probe opposes exemptions from liability; in the case of Canada’s Nuclear Liability Act, we fought, and ultimately lost, a decade-long battle in the courts to declare the Act unconstitutional.
- Canada’s export credit agency, Export Development Canada, uses subsidized Crown financing to extend loans and to insure Canadian companies who are building uneconomic dams (Guavio dam in Colombia) and operating environmentally risky mines (Omai in Guyana) in countries with dysfunctional legal and governance institutions. In so doing, EDC interrupts important market feedback that would otherwise protect environments and economies. Through newspaper articles and before Parliamentary committees, Probe International tracks EDC’s operations and exposes its harmful foreign operations made possible only by its access to the Queen’s credit card.
Good decision-making requires sound scientific and technical analysis that is free of political distortions.
- In 1988, Probe International used the Access to Information Act to obtain the 20-volume Three Gorges Feasibility Study paid for by the Canadian government and carried out by Canadian engineering firms, and Quebec and BC Hydro. These consultants recommended that the dam be built at an early date. Independent experts commissioned by us to evaluate the study found the scientific and economic assumptions in the feasibility study seriously compromised by omissions, oversights, and bias. We published these findings in a book called Damming the Three Gorges: What Dam-Builders Don’t Want You to Know and filed complaints against the Canadian engineers with their regulatory bodies.
- Though many claim the science of anthropogenic global warming is settled, Energy Probe’s Lawrence Solomon investigated and found that the theoretical arguments supporting AGW are highly politicized and scientifically unsound. Solomon’s 2008 book, The Deniers, exposed the questionable scientific arguments in favour of AGW and examined other forces at work that are affecting climate.