BC's incredible shrinking Environment Minister

December 1, 2003

Joyce Murray -- BC's Minister of the "Environment" (formally Water, Land and Air Protection) -- does not seem to wield a whole lot of power in the BC cabinet room. And her presence in Victoria appears to be shrinking day-by-day.

Just recently, Ms. Murray was seen standing in the legislature introducing a new bill dealing with provincial parks, but that legislation further undermines her responsibilities. Bill 84 allows mega-resorts in provincial parks, oil drilling underneath parks, and an oil and gas access road through a northern park. That bill -- and another introduced in January that allowed private operators into our parks while increasing park fees -- nicely bookend the year of The Incredible Shrinking "Environment" Minister.

Unfortunately, there's more. In 2003, the responsibilities of BC's "environment" minister were eliminated for 80% of BC's toxic waste and most pesticide use. The minister will not have to consider licenses, or even issue codes of practice, for all but the most high-risk toxic waste sites. Monitoring what is left of waste management regulations has been downloaded to municipalities.

Then there's the recently introduced Bill 75. It allows cabinet to get around the normal approval process by declaring any proposed project -- a rapid transit line, an offshore oil rig, you name it -- as "significant." The act doesn't override environmental assessments, but those were already made discretionary last year.

And don't expect the Minister of "Environment" to convince her cabinet colleagues that environmental oversight is required, no matter what the project. The government's "one-window" approach to approving everything from oil and gas development to fish farms to selling off BC land does not include a view from Ms. Murray's office.

With fewer responsibilities, the minister also needs fewer people to monitor and enforce our dwindling environmental regulations. With an overall 44% cut to her ministry, it is a toss-up whether it is shrinking faster than the minister herself.

To be fair, Minister Murray has increased some of her responsibilities, most significantly by expanding the recycling of containers, electronic waste, and used oil products.

But mostly the Minister's fading away. Others have had to assume what should her job: being a watchdog for the environment when dealing with the province's economic ministries, and ensuring that environmental protection is balanced against industrial development interests.

Environmental groups in BC have stepped in with a scathing indictment of the province's environmental record (www.BCFacts.org). Critics might dub them "the usual suspects," but other not-so-likely environmentalists have also stepped up to fill the minister's role.

The Forest Practices Board, the province's forestry watchdog, released a series of reports that documented the "environment" ministry's systematic inability to enforce forestry regulations and failure to set aside 99% of the province's wildlife protection areas.

The Union of BC Municipalities, whose member mayors gave Premier Campbell a standing ovation back in 2001, condemned Bill 75, the "significant" projects legislation. At their convention in September, delegates also passed a resolution asking the province to halt all coalbed methane activity until adequate environmental safeguards were in place. They unanimously asked the province to scrap Bill 48, which gives the BC Cabinet the right to impose agriculture and aquaculture developments on municipalities.

The Oil and Gas Commission, a Crown corporation whose commissioner is appointed by the province, also had a scathing report for the "environment" minister. The Commission found that one-third of BC's oil and gas operations violated regulations on stream crossings and one-third had improper sewage management practices.

With The Incredible Shrinking "Environment" Minister playing a smaller and smaller role in protecting the province's environmental resources, you would think that BC's government would welcome all watchdogs. After all, the greatest role of public oversight is not embarrassing the government, but rather pointing out where improvements can be made, hopefully before major mistakes happen.

Instead, beginning a year ago, the government cut the budgets of the Forest Practices Board and the Ombudsman by 35%, with the Auditor General facing a 15% budget cut. This is on top of increasing the wait time and restricting the scope of freedom-of-information requests.

So, just as Ontario is waking up to the high costs of environmental deregulation -- hazardous waste spills, contaminated water (Walkerton anyone?), risks to the food system, increased pollution -- BC seems to be following the same deregulation path. The risk to British Columbians -- as well as the risk of our "environment" minister disappearing altogether -- appear high.

Dale Marshall is the Resource Policy Analyst with the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.