NDP gov’t seeking feedback on changes to enviro assessment and impact of major resource projects

VANCOUVER—The B.C. government has opened the doors for public feedback on proposed changes to the environmental assessment regime, which considers the impact of major resource projects on the environment and communities.

Premier John Horgan tasked Environment Minister George Heyman with updating the assessment process last summer to ensure a “strong, transparent” process that respects the legal rights of First Nations.

It was “about time,” Gavin Smith, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, said in a blog post earlier this year, “because our current approach to assessment and planning in B.C. is not working.”

The public consultation continues until July 30.

One of the major issues with the current system is that it doesn’t consider the cumulative impacts of several resource projects in a region, Smith told the Star. It’s “what you might call death by a thousand cuts.”

That type of assessment would have been “very valuable” as interest in liquefied natural gas (LNG) grew in northern British Columbia, Smith said.

“You had something like 18 different projects that were being proposed with pipelines and facilities and so on, but no opportunity to deal with the bigger picture of all of that in one region,” he said. People were limited to commenting on individual projects.

In a statement, David Keane, president of the BC LNG Alliance, said his group agrees it’s important to consider the cumulative impacts of industry. The alliance works with other industries, communities and the government to deal with concerns outside the environmental assessment process, he said.

A new assessment process “that provides greater certainty and transparency through clear timelines will help projects avoid delays and attract investment to Canada,” Keane said.

Maintaining investor confidence in B.C. is a concern also for Bryan Cox, president of the Mining Association of B.C. While he said the province has “a really good” environmental assessment process, it can be improved, including by making the data that’s already collected more accessible to the public.

Under the current system, projects are assessed one by one. Smith said it’s great that the government is looking to develop a legal framework and ensure that cumulative effects are considered. But it’s still unclear whether there would be triggers for regional assessments and whether the results of those assessments would be binding.

“Ultimately everyone wants the same thing, which is sustainable, prosperous communities,” he said. The question is how do we “make sure that we’re achieving prosperous communities today that aren’t sacrificing the needs of our grandkids.”

That’s a major topic of discussion this week at the Resources for Future Generations conference in Vancouver: balancing resources needs with the need to mitigate environmental degradation and climate change.

There are no simple answers.

As John Thompson, the conference chair and a professor focused on sustainability at Cornell University, said last week, there are millions of people around the world without access to basic water and sewage infrastructure.

“Layer on top of that technology desires, whether it be cellphones with 62 elements in them or electric cars,” he said. “All of that requires metals and minerals.”