In service of business

BC's new plan for the environment
January 1, 2002

When analyzing the full array of plans to cut, privatize, and deregulate environmental protection, there is one clear theme that emerges. In its bid to improve the province's investment climate, the BC government has put the emphasis on facilitating access to BC's natural resources, while risking environmental protection and the long-term viability of those resources.

The language contained in the January 17th Ministry "service plans" is striking. The Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection (MWLAP) will focus on "client service" in order to do away with "constraints on economic development." The Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management (MSRM) will "facilitate sustainable economic development." The Ministry of Forests will eliminate regulations to "facilitate industry competitiveness." The Ministry of Energy and Mines' mandate is to trim regulations to foster "a more competitive investment climate." The Environmental Assessment Office, originally intended to identify the environmental risks associated with major projects, will now use "enabling statutes" to approve projects in a more "timely, cost-effective, and certain" fashion.

The transformation from regulator to service provider is also evident in the one-stop shopping approach to mining project approvals. Companies will only have to go to one ministry, by-passing the environment ministry staff who too often ask pesky questions about impacts on water, wildlife, and habitat.

The language is not accidental. It reflects the decreased ability the government now has to protect the environment thanks to cuts in regulations and to the staff who monitor and enforce them. Regulations will be cut in forestry, mining, oil and gas projects, and agriculture. Fish farms, despite continued escapes of Atlantic salmon and increased evidence of environmental impact, will be allowed to expand as the laws that regulate them are "streamlined." The forest industry will now undertake activities formerly done by the government-insect/disease control, treating invasive plants, silviculture, timber supply analysis-and shoulder the costs. The fact that industry leaders applauded the changes speaks volumes about how they expect their environmental compliance costs and timber supply calculations to change.

BC is the only province, post-Walkerton, to weaken drinking water regulations. Though the MWLAP promises to improve drinking water protection, the MSRM (in a remarkable contradiction) vows to "minimize the provincial role" in that protection. It is difficult to understand how cutting forestry, mining, and agricultural regulations will improve water quality.

The reality is that the remaining staff at Water, Land and Air Protection will not have the capacity to monitor and enforce regulations. Together, the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection and the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management will lose 1,000 people, continuing the downward slide in funding and staffing at the environment ministry over the last decade. The Ministry of Forests had its monitoring and enforcement budget cut by 14%.

The intent is not only to deregulate resource-dependent industries but also to allow them "greater access to Crown land and resources." This will also make it more difficult to resolve First Nations treaty negotiations. It does not appear that the government is at all interested in reinvigorating treaty negotiations in any event, given the substantial cut to the treaty negotiations office (including a 40% reduction in staff) and the complete elimination of 17 treaty advisory committees.

Expect wilderness experiences in British Columbia to also change. Parks will have higher fees, fewer services and facilities, but more commercial operations. Recreational sites and trails will no longer be maintained, nor will Forest Service roads that have only non-industrial users, i.e. campers, hikers, and canoeists.

Unfortunately, this is not all. No permits will be required for low- or medium-risk landfill sites ... there will be no provincial response to some environmental spills . . . the list goes on. The repeated injection of the word "sustainable" in the budget documents is clearly intended as a smokescreen for what is nothing but a massive reduction in the government's duty to protect BC's environment.

Dale Marshall is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.