It’s good to know B.C.’s government is not so rigid that it can’t change its mind, but if it made all its important decisions in public view, with opportunity for full debate, there wouldn’t be much need to reverse those decisions.
On Monday, the cabinet quietly passed an order-in-council that would have exempted almost all natural-gas production in the province from automatic environmental reviews.
The amendment to the Reviewable Projects Regulation would have also made changes to the assessment process for ski and all-season resorts.
Orders-in-council are handy for making regulatory changes of the housekeeping sort, minor tweaks to existing policies and rules.
But Monday’s change was not minor tweaking — it was a major policy shift, and one that should have been made in the public eye.
The proposed change would have applied to natural-gas processing plants that produce less than two tonnes of sulphur emissions per day.
That is known as “sweet” natural gas, as opposed to “sour gas” that has higher emissions. Nearly 99 per cent of B.C.’s natural-gas production is classified as “sweet.”
Environmental issues are huge in B.C., and often controversial, so it’s understandable that politicians would like to avoid making a fuss. But it doesn’t help if it looks as if changes are being made on the sly.
This is a government that has talked a lot about transparency, and it certainly looks as if transparency is involved here — a transparent attempt to make things easier for the B.C. Liberals’ favourite projects. Environment Minister Mary Polak said the changes were simply cutting red tape; these projects are subject to approval processes by other government agencies. “This will reduce the duplication,” Polak said.
“Right now there are two processes that are virtually identical.”
Environmental groups and First Nations didn’t see it that way. “We’re viewing this as another step toward environmental deregulation,” said Anna Johnston of West Coast Environmental Law.
“It’s part of a sliding that we’ve been doing — divesting ourselves of responsibility over responsible development.”
The response from First Nations was more than words — provincial officials were kicked out of a First Nations forum on liquefied natural gas in Fort Nelson Wednesday.
“There was no consultation as far as changing that policy,” said Chief Terry Teegee of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which represents eight First Nations communities in northern B.C.
“We were blindsided.” On the same day, Polak announced a complete turnaround on the decision and apologized for not having discussions with First Nations on the issue. Bureaucracy is self-perpetuating, and if not reined in periodically, can grow monstrously, with procedures taking precedence over purpose.
It’s good to examine rules from time to time, and streamline them where possible. But it should be done out in the open.
Here’s what we want to do and why, the government should have said. Help us make changes that work for everyone.
But when discussions and decisions take place behind closed doors, it makes the government appear to be setting aside consideration for the environment in favour of economic development, instead of trying to reconcile the two. B.C.’s dichotomy is an incredible natural environment and an economy that depends heavily on the development of natural resources.
The challenge is to balance the two, not sacrifice one for the other. Critics of the B.C. Liberals claim they are out to develop those resources and to hell with the environment. That’s not a fair assessment, but if they don’t want to be called ducks, they should stop walking and squawking like ducks.