Evan Saugstad: B.C.’s project review system isn’t broken


Environmental assessments for most are a very boring topic, until you understand the importance to all of us who rely on the resource economy. For those living in rural B.C., and especially in resource communities like Fort St. John, virtually all of our large-scale projects from mines to pipelines, gas plants to pulp mills require some type of environmental assessment.

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As we rely on these industries, we need to pay attention anytime our governments propose changes to current legislation based on the squeaking wheel, or the Not In My Backyard Syndrome, versus fixing something that’s legitimately broken and not working.

I will attempt to explain its importance, and in my view, with what’s wrong with this process and its potential outcomes over the next two columns.

First, in June, BC Environment Minister George Heyman announced the province would consult the public on our environmental assessment process until July 30. The review was characterized as “revitalization,” and intended to make changes to legislation, regulations, policies, and practices. It was focused on enhancing public confidence and transparency, advancing reconciliation with First Nations, and protecting the environment while giving a clear pathways to sustainable project approvals.

The proposed changes are outlined in a report written by the Environmental Assessment Advisory (EAO) Committee, consisting of First Nations, industry, local governments, and others. In July, the EAO released an interim report summarizing feedback it had received and requested further input.

I haven’t worked in the current EA process for the past two-plus years, but I did spend most of the last decade working through them, including B.C.’s. I must say, that once one isn’t working within a process as complicated as these, one’s knowledge of the line by line details does fade, but I still retain a good understanding and working knowledge.

From my direct experiences, and a close following of some of our current regulatory discussions and court cases on Site C and Trans Mountain, I thought I would weigh-in and provide my thoughts. I do note that Trans Mountain is federally regulated by the National Energy Board, but it still faces the same types of regulatory issues that most major projects in Canada do, be they provincial or federally regulated.

I have gone online and filled out B.C.’s questionnaire on our process, but it’s mainly focused on what the public thinks of the current process and how we perceive the EA. Interestingly, the interim report shows that only about 215 people had responded, and, of these, over 50% were from the Vancouver and Vancouver Island area. Only about 9% were from Northern B.C. It’s a bad sign when we aren’t paying attention to things that could affect us more than anyone else.

It’s interesting that this process is called a revitalization, as if the current system is broken. It isn’t. It’s a very robust process that takes a lot of time, effort, and dollars to work through. If one talks to any of those who have worked trying to get a project approved under the current system, they would likely say the same. They are also likely to say the current system is too onerous.

But, if you were to ask those who opposed a project that was ultimately approved despite their objections, , such as Site C, they would likely say the system is broken and needs to be fixed. Interestingly, the same is said of the federal and NEB assessment processes.

It’s my belief, after having worked through the B.C. system, mostly in consulting with affected First Nations, local governments and residents, that our EA process doesn’t need fixing, or any real changes at all. It’s hard and tedious work to meet, listen to, and address all expressed concerns from all First Nations and stakeholders.

For example, I worked on a natural gas pipeline project between here and Prince Rupert that took years and hundreds of hours of meetings, and back and forth dialogue to address all concerns and potential impacts, and to come to mutually acceptable resolutions. Although the project did receive its approval, it eventually stalled when the price of LNG dropped.

I can say that up to the point where the project work stopped, almost all participants expressed concerns, and they were addressed with resolutions to the satisfaction of those involved. One concern that couldn’t be addressed was that the pipeline should simply disappear and not be built at all, but even that may be what ultimately happens.

I believe it’s those who vehemently oppose a project and see it approved to their dismay are what’s driving this current review.

The review is not about how to address issues or concerns, or what takes precedence, such as engineering or science. Instead, it’s about feelings or beliefs, and how to stop the process when one doesn’t want something built. If government’s intent is to satisfy all interested parties, it will fail miserably, and we, the residents will pay the price.

Next week, the conclusion on what this may mean.

As always, and from my simple perspective.

Evan Saugstad lives in Fort St. John.

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