Scale and speed of industrial development in northwest B.C. undermines environmental assessment

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“Normally when you have a company that is spending billions of dollars on a project like this one,” Roth says, “that would involve the whole community and people all up and down the Skeena. Everyone who relies on Skeena salmon would be fighting this full time.”

Roth says the proposed plant could threaten air quality (including onset of acid rain) as well as the habitat and survival of salmon and other aquatic species. The project includes a trestle across Flora Bank, which contains eelgrass beds that provide both food and shelter for salmon smolts entering the ocean from fresh water, helping them adjust to salt water. The Skeena River is the second largest producer of salmon in B.C., after the Fraser.

But Roth says it is not just one LNG plant. She says the Skeena estuary and the Prince Rupert area face other potential projects including at least one other LNG proposal, coal trains, a potash terminal expansion, other port expansions, oil by rail, old pulp mill chemicals in sediments that might be dredged, and a harbour full of tankers carrying oil and LNG.

How would all those projects together affect Prince Rupert and the Skeena estuary? What might the cumulative impacts be? Hardly anyone in government or industry appears to be asking.

But the Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research is asking. The Smithers-based group is headed by Pat Moss, who has a philosophical and strategic approach borne of her 35-plus years of experience in many environmental issues in the northwest, starting with the Kitimat oil port (turned down by the federal government in 1978) through her 16 years working against the Kemano Completion project (cancelled by the B.C. government in 1995), and her involvement at the provincial and federal level on working groups that created environmental assessment legislation in the first place.

“We and other environmental organizations are trying to get the government to take more of a lead,” Moss says. “If there is going to be LNG, then how many projects should we have? Shouldn’t we just have one corridor, instead of a mess of pipelines going everywhere? There needs to be a broader look at all developments at once, not just LNG.”

So the Northwest Institute has collaborated with the University of Victoria Law School to produce a detailed report advocating regional cumulative environmental assessments. They sent it to the provincial environment minister in August along with a letter asking the government to support the idea.

Environment minister Mary Polak replied saying that such an approach is not needed because B.C. has one of the best environmental assessment processes in the world.

But there are others in the government who think the idea has some merit.

In September the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services hit the road in B.C. to get public input for the 2014 provincial budget. At their stop in Smithers, Richard Overstall, who is a Northwest Institute board member, addressed the committee, arguing for regional environmental cumulative impact assessments not just on environmental grounds but as good economic and social policy.

The standing committee appears to have heard him, because in a report on its findings released in November it recommends that the government “consider a strategic, cumulative environmental assessment of LNG projects in northwest BC and the creation of a common energy corridor for successful projects.”

The Tahltan Nation is also attempting to convince the provincial government to take a more long-term strategic approach to industrial development. In March the group and the provincial government signed a shared decision-making agreement that would allow collaboration on natural resource issues.

McPhee says it is too early to tell how it is working because the parameters are still being worked out. “But we are hopeful, otherwise we would not have signed on,” she says.

Asked if the agreement will apply to the Fortune Minerals coal mine, she said, “Of course it will.”

In the meantime, the current system of environmental assessment for the province is a sales job, says Richard Overstall.

“The approach of the companies is to sell the project to the public. They are salesmen. They should be diplomats, they should be negotiating to find out what the concerns are, adjusting the project to fit those. Rather they are selling it. The environmental assessment process is not designed as a consultation.”

Overstall stresses the importance of the concept of social licence.

“For a project like Northern Gateway or one of the LNG projects, you need permits, licenses, and certificates from government. But along with those, you need social license. That has been well demonstrated with Enbridge, and that is still being played out.” 

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