Environmental assessments of northwest B.C. resource projects fall short: report

A new auditor general report says the government has a lot more work to do to monitor and manage the cumulative effects of projects

A recently released auditor general report that addresses how the province is managing the environmental assessments of proposed natural resources projects – and uses the Skeena region as its focus area – says the government has a lot more work to do when it comes to monitoring and managing the cumulative effects of those projects.

Auditor general Carol Bellringer’s May 26 report concludes that while the government has taken steps to improve and clarify parts of the environmental assessment process, plans to look at the combined effects and interactions of development, not just each project in isolation, have too long of a timeline for implementation and fuzzy details.

The [forests and lands and natural resources] ministry is not effectively considering or addressing cumulative effects in its decision making, as demonstrated by recent activity in the Skeena Region of northwest B.C.,” reads the report.

It concludes that the government hasn’t given clear a clear directive to the ministry on how cumulative effects monitoring fits into natural resource decisions, and that while the government is improving the way it manages cumulative effects management “government has not resolved how it will use the framework to make and coordinate decisions across ministries.”

To study the cumulative effects of development means not just looking at each project through the lens of its industry’s regulations, but through a broadened scope which considers several projects and the surrounding environment, and how they might interact to cause environmental harm in the future.

Skeena NDP MLA Robin Austin said he thinks there has been progress with regards to the environmental assessment process, but “there’s still some significant progress to be made, especially in addressing cumulative impacts, which is of interest locally.”

Understanding and mitigating the cumulative effects of concentrated industry in the region “is really at the heart of what people up north are saying. It’s not a question of what one LNG plant will do to the airshed, it’s what would happen if there is multiple – on top of the fact that we’ve got the doubling of capacity at the Alcan smelter,” said Austin.

Studying the cumulative effects of the concentration of industrial development in a small area like this is a relatively new thing for the environmental assessment office, he said, and the process needs more resources.

I don’t think there’s enough staff on the ground to do the kind of science and the kind of work that’s necessary,” he said. “It’s about the government recognizing from this report – hopefully – that more resources have to be put in and more science has to be done so we can truly understand… At the end of the day, for those of us who live in the northwest, we want to have confidence in the EA process.”

Austin continued that it is important that environmental assessment authorities “make sure that they really have their facts straight before they give the all clear.”

Bellringer’s report offers up nine recommendations, several of which the government says it has already been implementing with its recently announced Cumulative Effects Assessment Framework.

The government takes issue with the report’s suggestion that the changes will not be fully implemented until 2021 – meaning decisions about resource projects will go ahead without consideration of the cumulative effects – saying in its response that changes will be province-wide by 2016 and are already happening in several regions of the province.

The auditor general focused on the Skeena region because “it has B.C.’s highest concentration of major natural resource development proposals … it has a diversity of natural resource uses, and it was a pilot area under the Cumulative Effects Framework.” About 24 per cent of the 160 currently proposed major natural resource projects in the province – that doesn’t include “many smaller development proposals involving forestry, water, land, quarries and exploration and drilling for oil” – are in northwest B.C.

Bellringer’s report reviewed land-use decisions made by the Skeena Regional Office and the Skeena-Stikine District Office, both in Smithers, looking mainly at decisions made between 2012 and 2014. It suggests that the decisions that have been made on natural resource projects in northwest B.C. haven’t been sufficiently assessed to consider their cumulative effects on the region.

In the selection of decision files that we reviewed in the Skeena Region, we found that ministry decision-makers had not adequately evaluated resource development proposals for cumulative effects,” reads the report. “Also, we concluded, based on an analysis of the ministry’s land use plans and monitoring programs, that information decision makers need to make informed decisions about cumulative effects is incomplete.”