Is a made-in-B.C. review the best option?
Review process at separate levels of government is the root of delays
Adrian Dix has stated that he wants to create a made in B.C. environmental assessment process and cancel progressive equivalency agreements with the federal government that are intended to harmonize the process.
But it is the position of the Association for Mineral Exploration British Columbia (AME B.C.) that in order to best consider everyone's interests and values in a more effective and efficient manner, the federal and provincial governments should be doing a single environmental assessment process in a coordinated, transparent and timely fashion in B.C. We already have well-established but separate provincial and federal review processes – and it is this separateness that is the root of delays in the environmental review of natural resource projects in B.C.
Notably, about half of all pro-posed mine projects in Canada are in B.C. This represents a huge multi-generational, multibillion-dollar, socio-economic opportunity to the families living in Canada's only Pacific province. According to B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office (BC EAO), there are 27 mining projects now in the environ-mental assessment pipeline. Of these, 23 are in the pre-application stage. The other four are under active review. Since 1992, out of the 42 mining projects that have completed the process, only 29 – or 69 per cent – have actually received certificates and only 11 of those have gone into operation. In other words, there is about a two-thirds likelihood that a proposed mining project will be certified and about a one-third likelihood that it will become an operational mine within a decade of receiving a certificate from the BC EAO. Getting a mine project success-fully through the review process and into production is extremely difficult and time-consuming.
For years, governments have been promising to untangle the daunting maze of regulations and processes that com-plicate project reviews and to better balance the interests of mineral explorers and developers, communities, non-government organizations and First Nations. This is not a partisan issue. Rather, it is an urgent matter for all of us to carefully consider if we hope to compete internationally, attract investment and build a sustainable economy in B.C.
Having multiple environmental assessments undertaken by different governments is a needless waste of precious time and resources, both human and natural. Better decisions, taken on behalf of taxpayers by elected officials, do not result from such confusion and duplication of effort. Often the time difference between when decisions are announced by the respective governments is 9 to 10 months, or even longer. Such a large and unsynchronized gap in time represents a lost opportunity to all of us. Sometimes the political decisions taken are even contradictory. Can you imagine being a project proponent and the federal government says "no" while the province says "yes," or vice versa after years of studies and mitigation planning to care-fully address adverse impacts and to optimize your return on investment? This kind of out-come is not an example of good government process or management, nor does it bring any kind of certainty to businesses and industries that are the economic foundations of the province and our social well-being.
To be globally competitive and attract serious investment, we must continue to design and implement an environmental assessment process that is smarter, better and faster. Industry does not want short-cuts or lower standards. Today's industry works with everyone (such as NGOs, local and aboriginal communities and academia) to be better environmental stewards and to make projects even safer than they already are. To be successful mineral explorers and developers, the industry is constantly evolving and improving its public engagement methods, safety procedures and environmental protection technology.
Arriving home safe every day is a top priority for the industry, which is a key reason why B.C.-based companies have one of the world's best safety records. And we all want to ensure that we have the cleanest water to drink, air to breathe and wild places to enjoy. But the facts remain – we need minerals and metals in modern society and the only way to get them is through responsible mineral development. Often, in the final assessment, we find that we have much more in common – including many shared values, needs and interests – than we initially realize.
What industry needs is a technically sound, robust, timely and inclusive environmental assessment process that is undertaken once – with one final decision. Having clarity of process and certainty in a decision is very important. This is why the "equivalency" approach, as now established between the provincial and federal governments to con-duct environmental reviews, is considered by many practitioners to be reasonable, effective and efficient. In consultation with local communities, public stakeholders and industry, the federal and provincial governments, along with First Nations, will have to invest the necessary initial resources and decide at the beginning of the process on the scope of the project to be reviewed, and which government is best able to undertake the work. Most importantly, in the interest of the average citizen, we need to remove the politics as much as possible from the technical review process.
Politicians should not be able to have a major impact on the science-based environmental assessment process, especially when we are talking about pro-posed natural resource-related projects that are in provincial or national interests.
The assessment process should be allowed, in most cases, to run its course without political intervention. At the conclusion of the review politicians should be provided a thorough and final assessment, complete with all the necessary findings and recommendations, in order for them to make a more informed, well-considered and balanced decision about a proposed project, in the interest of the greater good.
Removing as much political interference as possible and implementing a single environ-mental assessment process are the right things to do.
If we can do this, we may have a healthier chance at truly balancing environmental protection and economic and social development – and realizing the dream of sustainability.
Gavin Dirom is the president and CEO of the Association for Mineral Exploration British Columbia (AME BC).
BY GAVIN DIROM, VANCOUVER SUN