LandKeepers News Archive
March 10 2009 | News Articles | Prince George Citizen
Tories ponder environmental review changes
Written by Gordon Hoekstra
Monday, 09 March 2009
This is the third in a three-part series on the effects the environmental review process has on industrial development in northern B.C.
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Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice says his government is taking a serious look at how to remove duplication in federal and provincial environmental assessments.
But it’s unclear whether the federal law will need to be changed, or how fast, or even if, Ottawa will make changes.
“Certainly some people advocate legislative change, and some people are of the view this can be affected by way of regulations under the (existing) statute,” Prentice told The Citizen.
“Quite apart of which legal mechanism we use, the point is, all levels of government should be streamlining the environmental process, so there is a single process and not duplicative, overlapping, environmental reviews, because it is expensive, it’s time consuming and it’s frustrating for proponents of projects,” he said.
Prentice said where there are important areas of federal jurisdiction, or a project that requires a federal environmental assessment, the federal government will still retain the review authority.
He said he has raised the issue with the the civil service and they will be responding with alternatives.
Prentice could not offer a timeline.
Prentice’s approach is softer than one expressed just weeks ago by Transport Minister John Baird — the former environment minister — who said coming legislative changes should eliminate 90 per cent of federal environmental assessments.
Baird was pushing the idea of fast-tracking environmental assessments to expedite new public works projects as part of an economic stimulus package.
The issue of unnecessary delays in projects being assessed at the federal level has also been pushed at the highest political level in B.C., including by Premier Gordon Campbell and Environment Minister Barry Penner.
The province has suggested to Ottawa there should be one review for one project. The idea is that one jurisdiction — either the province or the federal government — should lead a review with all agencies, at all levels, feeding into that one authority.
Penner says he believes the change would require a legislative change — giving Ottawa the power to enter into agreements with provinces to have a single-window review. He noted that B.C.‘s proposition — which is somewhat similar to a method used in the Yukon — was a new idea to the federal government.
Penner stressed that B.C. has the largest number of projects under environmental assessment in Canada. “So, there’s a lot of potential economic stimulus. We just have to make sure that we’re safeguarding First Nations’ concerns and looking after the environment,” he said.
Penner said he had no idea how quickly Ottawa will deal with the issue.
There is a lot at stake economically in northern B.C.
An analysis by The Citizen shows eight mines and a natural gas pipeline, with a total investment of more than $7 billion, would create an estimated 4,000 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent jobs. Communities and businesses hit hard by the forestry downturn are eyeing diversification as a way to spur economic activity and jobs.
Currently, many major projects are taking three years or more to complete the parallel provincial and federal assessments.
Prince George-Peace River Conservative MP Jay Hill says, while he believes there’s been some success in ending unnecessary duplication, he acknowledged there is more that can be done. He refused to label the billions of dollars of projects in the environmental assessment process as merely potential. “We’re going to deliver,” said Hill.
The B.C. mining industry, in particular, has been pushing for a one-window process that can provide more certainty and timeliness to reviews. While the B.C. environmental assessment has timelines, the federal process is much more open-ended.
However, northern B.C. NDP MP Nathan Cullen does not believe the political ruminations of the minority Conservative government will achieve any results, largely because the public will not trust any coalition between Campbell and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Cullen charges that both governments are unwilling to engage with local government, First Nations and environmental groups. For example, the higher levels of government have even refused to define consultation, noted Cullen.
The Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP, whose riding stretches east to include Fort St. James, said it’s not a matter of communities being for, or against projects, but rather of simply wanting to be heard.
While Fort St. James and Mackenzie have shown support for the proposed $917-million Mount Milligan gold and copper mine, protests over coal-bed methane extraction have taken place in Smithers and Telkwa.
“I don’t think Harper or Campbell have the political legitimacy to pull something like this off, that’s why, in part, they prefer to talk about it, rather than do it,” said Cullen.
Gavin Dirom, president of the Association for Mineral Exploration B.C., believes senior politicians and bureaucrats in Victoria and Ottawa are “really trying” to hash the issue out. “But the proof is in the pudding,” he says.
The moribund environmental assessment process has been a frustration to Prince George businessman Bruce Sutherland.
As the president of WolfTek Industries, Sutherland has been trying to diversify into the mining and oil and gas sectors, from his company’s base in forestry.
While the political intentions to revamp the assessment process may be good, says Sutherland, when they get translated at the bureaucratic level, they are strangled.
Sutherland contemplates the 12,000 pages of documents that already make up Terrane Metals’ Mount Milligan project in northern B.C. — a project that was already permitted once in the 90s under Placer Dome — with despair. “It’s just a nightmare,” he says.
Projects like Mount Milligan have missed the recent upward turn of the commodity metals cycle — a nearly three-year uptick where copper prices tripled at their peak — but that is no reason that governments should sit back, stressed Sutherland. “Now is the time to work on the assessment process, not wait for another uptick.”
The environmental assessment process — both at the provincial and federal level — has also been a key concern of First Nations. Virtually all of the projects in the review process are on land claimed as traditional territory by First Nations.
Dave Porter, who sits on the First Nations Summit executive in B.C., is very blunt about any changes the province or federal government are considering to the assessment process.
He stresses First Nations must have input.
Porter, who was a key speaker at a First Nations mining summit in Prince George last fall, is concerned because he is watching a strategy to streamline the process, driven by industry, and taken up by the province, and seemingly gaining some traction in Ottawa.
“I think it would be a blunder of historic proportions if government attempted to sit in the corner, redesign the process and impose it on us,” said Porter. “It will only be met with resistance. We’ll have more court cases.”
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