Like many, I did not see Premier Christy Clark’s surprise majority win coming.
It is no secret that the environmental community, West Coast Environmental Law included, saw some of the other parties as offering stronger environmental platforms. UBC’s Professor George Hoberg has gone so far as to describe the election results as a “stunning setback for the environmental community.”
With the election dust settling, the question is what does the new government mean for environmental law in BC?
While the BC Liberal win may well result some tough questions for BC’s environmental organizations, it is time to look at where there are opportunities to work with the new government. Our belief that the Greens and NDP had the stronger environmental platforms does not mean that we should not expect environmental leadership from the BC Liberals during this new mandate.
We know that British Columbians of all political stripes expect their leaders to protect the environment. We look forward to working with the new government to help them deliver on their environmental promises made during the election.
Here are some of the specific commitments made by the BC Liberals in their election platform, or during and prior to the election, that we will expect that new BC government to deliver on:
- A new Water Act;
- Regulation of pipelines;
- Cumulative impacts and species at risk;
- Climate Leadership; and
- Protection of the Klappan Valley.
A new Water Act
In its last mandate the Liberal government showed a lot of courage in tackling BC’s outdated Water Act, and the election platform commits the government to:
Consult on the Water Sustainability Act in 2013 with the intention of passing this legislation in 2014. The Act will protect B.C. aquifers and drinking water resources while providing industry with a framework under which drinking water allocations are made.
As we’ve reported, earlier discussion papers indicated that the promised Water Sustainability Act would expand government powers to ensure that there is enough water for fish and wildlife – especially in drought situations – as well as regulating groundwater extractions. Both of these are important steps forward. The devil is, of course, in the details, but the environmental community needs to press the government to deliver on its commitment, in the platform’s discussion of the oil and gas industry, to ensure that “tough environmental standards [apply] to those who use our water.”
Regulation of pipelines
Let’s be clear: we do not believe that new or expanded pipelines bringing tar sands oil to our coast for export will ever be a good idea. The BC Liberals, instead of rejecting these pipelines and tankers projects outright, have committed to “5 conditions” that must be met before pipelines go ahead. While we don’t agree with that approach, we note that neither Enbridge, nor Kinder Morgan, are anywhere close to meeting these 5 conditions in respect to their respective projects. The provincial government has said as much regarding the Enbridge project. On that basis, as the time for closing arguments in the Enbridge hearings near, it is time for the province to say “no” loudly and firmly to the Enbridge project, and to be prepared to do the same regarding Kinder Morgan.
Of course, opposition to the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan Pipelines is not dependent on the province. Over hundred First Nations have declared the pipelines to be illegal under their laws. Local governments are saying no to the pipelines. And ordinary British Columbians are standing up to say no.
Cumulative impacts and species at risk
During the election campaign the BC Liberal party was asked by Organizing for Change to describe its position on laws to protect BC’s species at risk (among other issues). The BC Liberals committed to moving forward consultations on, and presumably implementation of, its draft 5 year plan for Species at Risk in British Columbia. The statement from the BC Liberals suggested that these consultations could result in new legislation aimed at protecting Endangered Species.
The 5 year plan is not without controversy – many environmentalists fear that it will not provide strong protection for particular species. It is certainly not the stand-alone species at risk act with strong protection for the habitat of specific species that the environmental community has been demanding for literally decades.
However, the draft 5 year plan at least invites a conversation about protecting endangered species. It is possible that a number of the specific approaches and commitments proposed, if appropriately implemented, could have a benefit both for species at risk and for the environment at large. These include:
- Applying protection for species at risk across all industries. Currently the rules related to protecting species at risk that apply to logging, don’t apply to mining, and vice-versa.
- Requiring decision-makers to evaluate the cumulative impacts of multiple developments happening in one region and the impacts on endangered species in every decision government makes. Our recent #BeyondPipelines dialogue discussed the importance of a strong approach to addressing the cumulative impacts of development.
- Recognizing that habitat protection is required (in at least some cases).
- Creating opportunities and incentives for local governments, First Nations, private land owners and others to protect endangered species.
The real question is whether the government will deliver on these promises (the BC Liberals have promised increased protection for species at risk in past elections without delivering) and whether their version will be a strong or weak version. But, while we remain concerned that a stronger species at risk act is required, the development and implementation of this plan clearly raises some opportunities for environmental protection.
While we were disappointed that the BC Liberals promised not to expand or increase BC’s ground-breaking carbon tax, the BC Liberals did commit to retaining the tax, and highlighted their past climate leadership in the Platform. In answering the Organizing for Change questions, the BC Liberals reaffirmed their government’s commitment to achieve BC’s legislated climate targets:
Our government legislated the greenhouse gas reduction targets cited above and we have a Climate Action Plan in place to achieve those goals. Our climate leadership is reflected in our government’s revenue-neutral carbon tax, and in our commitment to a carbon neutral government. … Today’s BC Liberals remain committed to reaching our legislated greenhouse gas emission targets in 2020 and 2050.
The big questions are how these targets will be met and what specific new initiatives the BC government plans to undertake to meet them (particularly since the government has said it won’t increase the carbon tax). The Climate Action Plan, which was released by the BC Liberal government in 2007, acknowledges explicitly that it will not, without further action, achieve the 2020 target. These targets are, as has often been pointed out, entirely inconsistent with the plans to dramatically increase LNG exports.
However, the recommitment to the Climate Action Plan is a good thing, and the government can certainly be encouraged to build on the initiatives (most of which are now completed) it outlines, and to adopt a new, updated Climate Action Plan that will meet BC’s targets.
Protection of the Klappan Valley
The BC Liberal Platform highlighted the BC Government’s role in protecting the Sacred Headwaters from drilling by Shell (the government had granted Shell drilling rights in 2004, but helped negotiate a surrender of those drilling rights). Although the platform gives the government a lot of wiggle-room on future action, the government promised to explore more permanent protection for this ecologically significant area:
A BC Liberal government will work with communities, First Nations and industry to examine the feasibility of developing a provincially designated protected area in the Klappan.
The environmental community should certainly join with the Tahltan Nation and others to press for the permanent protection of this internationally significant region.
As has often happened over West Coast’s 40 year history, there are many areas where we and the rest of the environmental community will not see eye to eye with the BC Liberal Government. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee the possibility of future conflicts resulting from the BC Liberal promise to push resource development when there are not currently strong environmental laws in place.
But this does not mean that there are no areas where we can work with the government. Environmentalists come in all political stripes and we encourage all British Columbians to press the BC government to deliver on their environmental campaign promises and to develop, enact, implement and enforce strong laws that will protect our natural environment.
By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer
Note: For reference here are the positions of other parties elected to the BC Legislature on the topics covered above: The NDP are (a) in favour of a new Water Act; (b) opposed to either the Enbridge or Kinder Morgan Pipelines; (c) in favour of stand-alone Species At Risk legislation; (d) committed to the GHG reduction targets, and would expand the carbon tax; and (e) was supportive of the government’s actions in getting Shell out of the Klappan Valley. For more information about NDP positions, here are the party’s answer to questions posed by Organizing for Change.
The Green Party (a) does not appear to have a position on a new Water Act; (b) is opposed to all tar sand pipelines through BC; (c) is in favour of stand-alone Species at Risk legislation; (d) is supportive of the legislated GHG targets, and would not just expand, but also raise, the carbon tax; and (e) has not taken, to our knowledge, a specific position on the Klappan. For more information about Green Party positions, here are the party’s answer to questions posed by Organizing for Change.