Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Igniting the Ring of Fire: no one has a plan

Opinion / Commentary

None of the major party leaders in Ontario has assessed the overall opportunities and risks of developing the province’s Ring of Fire.

By:Robert B. Gibson

Toronto Star

Last week in the Ontario election campaign, the three major party leaders fell over each other competing for the mining booster award — the ribbon for being the most enthusiastic expediter and/or public funder of Ring of Fire development.

There was plenty of loose talk of superfast approvals and heaps of taxpayer funding for mine-enticing infrastructure, and plenty of starry-eyed anticipation of huge provincial revenue.

But no one has a plan. No one has assessed the overall opportunities and risks of Ring of Fire development. No one has prepared a considered vision of the desirable future for the region or how to get us there. And so far, none of the booster ribbon contestants has promised to try.

Ore bodies are inevitably depleted. They bring lasting benefits only if the mines, associated projects and revenues are used to build foundations for sustainable livelihoods after the mining ends. That does not happen automatically. Lasting benefits depend on far-sighted effort from the outset.

The potential Ring of Fire developments include several mines, plus transportation and power projects and maybe some mineral processing. While each project will bring opportunities and risks, the overall effects — on communities, ecosystems, local and regional economies — will come from all of these projects together. The challenge is to anticipate the interacting cumulative effects and weigh the options for enhancing the gains and avoiding the perils.

Enhancing the gains involves finding the best ways to capture and extend the transient benefits (revenues, jobs, training) from multiple mines. It entails designing and locating the roads, rails and power facilities to serve multiple purposes over the long term, and using the various opportunities to build skills, develop renewable resources and diversify local and regional economies.

Avoiding the perils requires learning from past mining booms. Too many of them left legacies of economic and social bust, unsuitable transportation and power infrastructure, ecological scarring and residual contamination requiring care in perpetuity. And special risks attend development in the Ring of Fire, a region of aboriginal communities in undisturbed and irreplaceable boreal forest.

What is clearly needed is a regional-scale examination of how to encourage and guide Ring of Fire development so that it delivers multiple, lasting and fairly distributed net benefits. Such an initiative must respect the rights and interests of the First Nations affected by Ring of Fire development. It needs everyone at the table — federal, provincial and aboriginal governments, proponents and other stakeholders. And it can work only if the process is transparent enough to be credible, and only if the agenda goes beyond immediate issues to aim for desirable results 100 years from now.

This is not a new message. The province has been repeatedly warned by independent authorities, including the Far North Science Advisory Panel and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, that a bigger vision planning approach is needed to guide decisions on particular Ring of Fire projects.

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment has for many years been promoting regional strategic environmental assessments as collaborative processes for examining planning scale options, building consensus on objectives and providing overall guidance for individual project assessments. Such assessments can improve prospects for long-term sustainability and social licence for development.

Any initiative with a big agenda and many players takes time, demands some serious research and analysis, and involves struggles for agreement. But it does not follow that the work must swallow resources and delay sensible decisions.

The process can provide working positions and interim guidance while wrestling with difficult specifics. And in the Ring of Fire case, it will not be difficult to improve on the current utter absence of public guidance on the long-term vision, key issues and options, and basic criteria for evaluations.

Before this election campaign ends, the leading contenders could distinguish themselves with a little wisdom as well as money for the Ring of Fire development. If they really want the ribbon that matters, they should tie their booming enthusiasm to far-sighted planning for a sustainable future.

Robert B. Gibson is a professor of Environment and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo.

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