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B.C. Government Backtracks On LNG Environmental Assessement Decision Following First Nations Outcry

(By Adam Campbell, Manager, Regulatory and Legal at Integrated Sustainability)

After public outcry from First Nations groups and conservation legal groups, British Columbia’s Environment Minister, Mary Polack has done a complete turnaround on a decision that would have exempted most of the natural gas produced in the province and destination resorts from mandatory environmental assessment.

On Monday, cabinet passed an order in council, without public debate,  amending the Reviewable Projects Regulation under the Environmental Assessment Act, that would have removed about 99 percent of the natural gas produced in the province, as well as ski and all-season resorts, from automatic environmental reviews. The government reversed that decision on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, in response to the order in council, provincial bureaucrats were asked to leave and were escorted out of a First Nations meeting on liquified natural gas in Fort Nelson, BC. Several First Nations also sent a request to B.C. Premier Christy Clark to meet and discuss the amendments, noting that the decision was made without consultation, despite their interests in land use decisions that impact their traditional territories.

Chief Steward Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs condemned the order with strong language, stating “In a stunningly stupid move, the province has effectively declared war on all B.C. First Nations and jeapordized all LNG discussions through the entire province of B.C.”

BC Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould stated, “The Order in Council decision to omit sweet gas and ski resorts from provincial environmental assessment is very disappointing to many of the BC First Nations currently participating in dialogue with government and industry today at the Fort Nelson Shale Gas/LNG Summit. Decisions aimed only at ‘cutting red tape’ do nothing to ease intensifying concerns by First Nations and by the public about environmental protection. This growing unease does nothing to create a positive climate in BC; the province is running the risk of stalling economic progress by ignoring the need for appropriate environmental management. Opportunities for relationship building are lost when the BC Government on the one hand participates in open dialogue with First Nations on topics like LNG, but on the other makes no effort to consult with First Nations on major environmental deregulation in the same day. This is another unacceptable example of government once again attempting to water down and minimalize their consultation and accommodation obligations with our communities.”

The government reversed that decision yesterday, with Polack apologizing, saying that the government failed to discuss the amendment with First Nations. “Our government is committed to a strong, respectful and productive relationship with First Nations,” she said in a statement. “That is why we will rescind the amendment that would have removed the requirement for an environmental assessment for sweet gas facilities and destination resorts, until we have undertaken discussions with First Nations.”

“Our government sees a significant value in continuing to develop a government to government relationship with all First Nations. We remain actively engaged with First Nations in northeastern British Columbia, including shared decision making that respects the environment, First Nation values, and Treaty 8 and its associated rights”
The current session of the B.C. Legislature has introduced a  series of amendments and new statutes with environmental implications, many of them are much needed, such as the proposed Water Sustainability Act – Bill 18 at 2nd reading, however several of these bills and amendments have received little or no public consultation (a full list can be found at West Coast Environmental Law Environmental Law Alert Blog) and there has been quite vocal opposition by environmental/conservation groups and First Nations.
The B.C. government has felt pressure to approve their LNG regime as global competition heats up. They have been rushing to try and establish a competitive and attractive fiscal and tax regime to attract investors. B.C.’s urgency to finalize the fiscal regime underlines the government’s determination to attract companies that are weighing various locations to build LNG projects, including the United States, Australia, West and East Africa. The streamlining of the environmental process was likely implemented to help make the province more attractive to these investors, however this backtracking makes it clear that the government must do a better job at consulting with First Nations and stakeholders and they cannot rush the process. The potential of growing opposition from First Nations could be a deterrent to potential investors. Industry looking to invest in LNG in B.C. needs to make sure that the government listens to First Nation’s concerns, as their buy-in is crucial to these projects moving forward.  Many First Nations understand the job prospects and economic benefits that these projects could bring, however many of them also have concerns about potential environmental effects and these concerns need to be listened to and addressed. On a national scale, this opposition could have a potential spill-over effect into other provinces and territories as well, such as the Yukon, which imposed a temporary moratorium on fracking last year, after their council of First Nations declared traditional territories to be “frack free.”