Major natural gas projects and ski resort developments now have the option of being built in B.C. without environmental assessment after the Liberal government quietly deposited two orders in council Monday. (Update April 17, 2014: The B.C. government has rescinded this decision. Read our new post here)
The orders — passed without public consultation — include changes to the Reviewable Projects Regulation under the provincial Environmental Assessment Act, which eliminate mandatory environmental review of new and/or modified natural gas and ski facilities. As a result, proposed projects like the Jumbo Glacier Resort or new natural gas processing facilities may skirt the approval process without standard environment review, which involves public consultation.
“These regulatory changes only heighten the crisis of public confidence in B.C.’s environmental assessment process,” said Jessica Clogg, executive director and senior counsel with West Coast Environmental Law Association (WCEL) in a press release.
“Environmental assessments are supposed to allow the public and regulators to better understand and avoid potential risks. Removing the requirement for an environmental review is not in the public interest.”
Changes to affect currently proposed projects
The Jumbo Glacier Resort, a $900-million mega resort proposed for 6,000 hectares of B.C.’s Purcell Mountains, has been stuck in planning-stage limbo for two solid decades. Despite significant provincial support, the development still faces a number of hurdles, the most notable of which is an unresolved legal challenge brought against the resort by the Ktunaxa Nation. If construction doesn’t begin by October 2014, the development faces losing its environmental approval certificate.
Changes made to the Reviewable Projects Regulation may ease the recertifying process without requiring public consultation or environmental oversight.
“It appears to be a stunning attempt to keep the ill-fated Jumbo Resort proposal afloat, funded by the misappropriation of British Columbian's taxpayer dollars,” said Wildsight’s Robyn Duncan.
During a recent public consultation more than 1,300 letters of opposition were submitted from across B.C.
“Assessing the environmental and social impacts of any such project should be a basic requirement,” Duncan said. “Exempting projects like Jumbo from the environmental assessment process closes the door on informed decisions in regard to environmental and social impacts.”
Potential loss of oversight for B.C. natural gas projects
The lack of oversight will also influence B.C.’s rapidly expanding natural gas sector. New natural gas processing plants may now be approved without a provincial environmental assessment.
Anna Johnston, staff counsel at WCEL, says that the changes could have severe consequences for local communities. “Now for natural gas production facilities there is no public review. Once there is no longer an environmental assessment, there is no mandatory public consultation.”
“It’s really concerning with these natural gas facilities, because there are so many of them. The province wants to grow this industry and there is a lot of related infrastructure, roads, and pipelines,” she told DeSmog Canada.
“They have a huge impact on habitat and water.”
Under existing law companies will still have to notify affected landowners and First Nations but not the general public.
Proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities for the central coast will still be subject to environmental assessment, says Johnston, because they store fuel and so fall under a different review category.
According to WCEL, the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office claims the changes “are designed to reduce duplication with regulation by the Oil and Gas Commission and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations.”
However, “these changes go far beyond avoiding any possible duplication,” Johnston wrote in the WCEL press release.
“Environmental assessments are an essential and distinct part of any development process. With these changes, the province has eliminated the kind of fact-finding process and analysis that is required for responsible decision-making.”
“Public participation is necessary for social buy-in,” she said. “Governments can only keep restricting citizens’ rights to have their say in the projects that affect them for so long.”
The changes are especially significant after the weakening of the federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which places the responsibility and burden of environmental assessments upon the provinces.