Science in complex environmental decisions

Article published in the Regulator | Issue 5: 2014 

It is commonly understood across the offshore petroleum industry that effective decision making in relation to environmental management should be based on sound scientific rationale.

This is particularly relevant in the context of objective-based regulation where the onus is placed on the titleholder to present a supported case that demonstrates environmental impacts and risks of petroleum activities are being managed to as low as reasonably practicable and acceptable levels. Likewise, the regulator must be proficient at considering the merit of the case provided, along with any outstanding disputes, in order to reach a reasoned, science-based decision.

A recent article, entitled Applying scientific principles in international law on whaling, by William de la Mare et al. (2014) has emphasised the importance of this concept. The article references a recent ruling by the International Court of Justice that a Japanese whaling program in the Antarctic, ostensibly for scientific purposes, was not sufficiently research-oriented and thus was illegal. In the article, De la Mare et al. present the process applied by the court to reach this decision as a case study for making effective decisions in relation to complex technical disputes. The article cautions the misrepresentation of science to advance non-science agendas in disputes involving economic, social, or political values and urges decision makers to base decisions on scientific merit.

NOPSEMA upholds these principles in its role as the independent regulator for environmental management of offshore petroleum activities. This is achieved through impartially assessing environment plans in accordance with acceptance criteria designed to focus NOPSEMA’s decision making on scientific merit. To facilitate this process titleholders are encouraged to transparently and accurately identify and evaluate impacts and risks in order to present a robust science-based case for acceptance.

For more detail on the concepts presented by De la Mare et al. please see the Applying scientific principles in international law on whaling article which is on the Jack Baskin School of Engineering website. Titleholders may also wish to review NOPSEMA’s Environment plan content requirements (PDF 953KB).