At a little over $500 million capex, the Morrison Lake copper-gold mine in British Columbia is comparatively small, and the company behind it – Pacific Booker (TSX-V:BKM) – is also small.
Small enough that it can be kicked around like a political football until it deflates.
At least that seems to have been the strategy of the previous BC Liberal government, and the BC Environmental Assessment Office (EAO), which put Pacific Booker through a 10-year review process that ultimately found the project had ticked all the required boxes, and then denied the project a permit anyway.
Following a BC Supreme Court ruling requiring the project to be reconsidered, the Morrison Lake mine continues to languish in a supplemental environmental assessment process under the current BC NDP government – a process so slow and capricious that former BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, who retired from politics, is still bothered by it.
“The question is, ‘Has this company been treated fairly?’ And in my view, and in the Supreme Court’s view, the answer is unequivocally no,” Weaver told BIV. “And that is why I raised it. It’s a question of fairness.”
The copper-gold property is located at Morrison Lake, which drains into Babine Lake. The project has now been at the environmental assessment stage for 18 years, since 2003.
After spending 10 years and $10 million going through that process, the company was notified in 2012 that, despite an initial positive recommendation by the EAO’s executive director that the project posed no adverse environmental risks, and that the duty to consult First Nations had been fulfilled in good faith, the application was denied.
Late in the process, the executive director had changed a positive recommendation to a negative one, without giving the company a chance to respond and potentially address any outstanding concerns.
Pacific Booker filed for a judicial review, and a BC Supreme Court judge found that the government had “failed to comport with the requirements of procedural fairness.”
The judge sent the matter back to cabinet for reconsideration. But despite getting its knuckles rapped for having moved the goalposts, the former BC Liberal government appeared to move them again by demanding a supplemental application in 2015, which would require more studies and adjustments to the mine plan.
Worse, according to Pacific Booker, the BC EAO has been vague about just what is expected of the company in the required supplemental application.
“They want us to tell them what we’re going to do,” said Pacific Booker CEO John Plourde. “They’re supposed to tell us what we’re going to do.”
“Despite numerous exchanges with the environmental assessment office and the completion of an in-depth study of Morrison Lake, Pacific Booker has been unable to clarify the precise nature of what is actually required,” Weaver said in June 2020 during Question Period.
The BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy says it’s clear what the company must do: “The further assessment order issued by ministers in 2015 clearly lays out the information Pacific Booker Minerals would need to provide to continue the assessment process, with the first step being to submit a satisfactory draft Supplemental Application Information Requirements (SAIR) document.”
The most recent correspondence between the company and EAO has been an argument over whether the project is or isn’t in the headwaters of the Skeena watershed – something the EAO says is irrelevant anyway. Weaver sides with Pacific Booker on that score.
“One of the problems here is the environmental assessment office keeps actually stating that this mine is at the headwater of the Skeena River, which it’s not,” Weaver told BIV News. “That was one of the reasons they used in their 2012 decision. That is actually factually incorrect.”
Weaver isn’t the only former MLA that felt Pacific Booker was treated poorly. Ralph Sultan, a now-retired Liberal MLA, took issue with his own government. In a letter to then environment minister Terry Lake, Sultan took issue with “two senior politicians” who described the Morrison Lake project as “tiny.”
“If the fundamental reason Pacific Booker was rejected was the fact that it was ‘tiny,’ I think many of the hundreds of junior mining folks … would find that news disturbing,” Sultan wrote in 2013.
In the original environmental assessment, the company ticked all the right boxes. Weaver believes it was rejected not on environmental grounds, but on political ones.
The Lake Babine First Nation has been unwavering in its opposition to the project, based on concerns about the impact of the mine on salmon.
A former chief publicly threatened to revoke his people’s support for the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission line if the provincial government approved the mine. That pipeline project was originally tied to the $36 billion Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which was abandoned.
A lawyer representing the Lake Babine First Nation confirmed to BIV last week that nothing has changed from the First Nation’s perspective.
Governments prefer to decide aboriginal rights and title through negotiation, which gives them some say, as opposed to the courts, which give them none.
But that should not mean that the usual standards of procedural fairness should be set aside, Weaver said.
“I understand the importance of Indigenous engagement,” Weaver said. “We pushed for UNDRIP [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples]. On the other hand, business certainty is critical. And if you’re just changing the goalposts every time you do something, that scares business away.”
Bill Bennett, the now-retired former minister of energy and mines, acknowledged that First Nation opposition partly explains his government’s reticence to approve the mine project.
“It’s true that the local First Nation was not interested in having a mine built so close to the lake,” Bennett said. But he added there are genuine concerns about the impact of the mine on Morrison and Babine Lake sockeye.
“You hear that all the time – ‘it’s one of B.C.’s most important salmon lakes,’” Bennett said. “Well, this one really is.
“It was a combination of very stiff Indigenous opposition, but also, I believe, some not unreasonable queasiness on the part of the Environmental Assessment Office.”
In November 2020, Pacific Booker’s mine lease, which was set to lapse, was reinstated. The company is still writing letters back and forth to the EAO, trying to get clarification on what is expected in terms of supplemental studies and processes.
Meanwhile, the BC NDP government and federal authorities have hammered out an agreement with the Lake Babine First Nation that sets the stage for a treaty of sorts.
In September, they signed an agreement that provides the Lake Babine First Nation with C$43 million in funding and 20,000 hectares of land valued at C$150 million. It also commits to “a road map” for implementing self-governance and collaboration on “major land and resource decisions.”
(This article first appeared in Business in Vancouver)