During most elections, the economy is a topic that is of great importance to voters. In the Skeena riding, resource development is a major part of the region’s economic well-being. Forestry, fossil fuels and mining all provide jobs and draw investment to the region.
But with the forestry sector far diminished compared to its peak years, a global push to transition away from fossil fuels and the tricky subject of mineral exploration, how do the 2020 Skeena candidates view these sectors and propose to move forward.
Forestry has been a pillar of northwest B.C.’s economy for generations. In recent years, the pellet industry has gained prominence as green energy solution. Pellets are billed as an alternative to other forms of fuel such as coal, and can be made from wood waste, known as fibre, from other forestry operations.
The previous NDP government touted the benefits of the pellet industry because fibre can be used to make pellets as opposed to being burned openly in the forest, and pellets can take the place of coal-fired power plants in Asia and Europe. Doug Donaldson, former minister of forests, said the pellet industry was “on an incredible upswing” and can reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
However, there have been complaints about using whole logs, and pellets feeding foreign markets, especially after regional pellet shortages.
BC NDP candidate Nicole Halbauer said she needs to do more research into criticism of B.C.’s pellet industry before taking a stance.
“I’d like to see the basis of the criticism so that I’m fully informed on that before moving forward,” she said. “They’re not supposed to be using whole logs, that’s not the intent. They’re supposed to be actually able to use the waste to create the pellet, and if that’s the case then yes, [pellets] can be a long term strategy, but we need to make sure that’s what’s happening.”
BC Liberal candidate Ellis Ross said that the question is a complicated one and that its history needs to be looked at to address it properly today.
He added that the world had recognized that the European Union had to get away from dirty fuels and head towards more eco-friendly alternatives previously, and as the technology around pellets was improving, they transitioned to pellets on large commercial basis.
“In terms of value added, the pellet industry did get established, but at a time when nobody really wanted or demanded pellets because natural gas was still cheap at the time, hydro rates were still cheap,” Ross said. “So by the time they got established, local British Columbians recognized that pellets was actually a great alternative as well. And so the timing just wasn’t right for domestic market, but now the domestic market is there.”
Ross said he’s been talking to pellet producers to better understand how the process works and the need for commercial agreements, but that there has to be a way to capitalize on domestic supply and combine with other value-added products in the area.
“I’ve heard people talk about value added for years but Ken James [from the West Coast Olefins petrochemical company] is the first one that’s said that, you know, if we can pull out the value added project out of the LNG pipeline and combine that with the value added products coming out of the forest industry, maybe that’s something that actually gets us off to a good start.”
Independent candidate Martin Holzbauer said pellet producers must have sustainability as a top priority.
“Pellets are good in principle, but it has to be done properly,” he said. “In some areas, not just Canada but around the world, they’re cutting down mature forest to make pellets, which defeats the purpose.”
Oil and gas
Like the pellet industry, oil and gas was part of the previous government’s economic strategy, if only in the medium term. That plan included the contentious Coastal GasLink (CGL) natural gas pipeline, which is opposed by the Office of the Wet’suwet’en.
The B.C. Supreme Court issued injunctions and the RCMP cleared blockades and arrested opponents of the pipeline, sparking solidarity protests from coast to coast. Construction on the pipeline has since resumed, while questions surrounding First Nations reconciliation and a transition from an oil-based economy remain.
Halbauer said there are benefits to oil and gas production, at least in the short to medium term, but government and industry still have much to learn in regards to consultation of First Nations regarding energy projects.
“One of the most important things with reconciliation is this is the first time we’re doing it,” she said. “It is the systems that we need to look at. How are we approaching these issues? How are we approaching industry and development? How are we taking care of the people while we move forward and transition from oil and gas to cleaner energy? And what is the process we’re going to use? If the process we have now is problematic, let’s sit back, do an assessment.”
Much of the trouble with past consultations has come from the contrast between corporate culture and Indigenous cultures, Halbauer said.
“Government, energy, all of these corporations — they want one way, one route, because that’s efficient, and that’s economies of scale, and that gives them a clear direction … So we get trained to make burgers at McDonald’s one way. We get trained to do accounting for big business one way,” she said. “[First Nations] cultures are not like that. We have hundreds of different cultures, but even if you look in my own culture, our house system, it’s different from our neighbour’s house system.”
Halbauer said businesses must learn to adapt to different cultures, and ensure that people are consulted before major decisions or investments are put into a project.
“The people that are being impacted by the developments need to be brought in at the front, not after investment and decisions are made, and then being forced to comply with those decisions,” she said. “And I think that’s a huge thing is understanding that the approach to business is not going to be the same for every community along the way. You need to be able to adapt. Business is about adaptation.”
“It’s part of the decolonization process. Decolonization of business—that’s really what we’re talking about.”
Ross, however, said that reconciliation is a process that has already been going on and is a large part of what has allowed B.C. to capitalize on the oil and gas sector.
“Well we already have capitalized on it,” he said. “The last 15 years working with the oil and gas companies and First Nations was actually an example of reconciliation in action.”
Ross said it all stems from Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution of Rights, which lays out the rights of aboriginal peoples in Canada, as well as the case law that surrounds the section, mainly being the Haida Nation versus British Columbia Minister of Forests court case, in which the Supreme Court of Canada judged that the Crown has a “duty to consult with Aboriginal peoples and accommodate their interests,” including when exploiting lands to which an Aboriginal group may have claims.
“It’s not a new thing. Reconciliation has been in action, in full swing for the better part of 16 years,” Ross said. “It’s why you see so much activity, so much business in Kitimat and Terrace and that’s why you see it. Because reconciliation was actually making great strides here in B.C.”
Holzbauer said oil and gas is a receding industry. There will still be uses for petroleum products, such as in production of plastics, but there are viable alternatives to petroleum that could eventually be used in the future as technology advances, he said.
He added that LNG in western Canada is often sourced from fracking, which he doesn’t support because it’s harsh on the environment and financially unfeasible.
“Fracking is not sustainable,” he said. “Not only that, if you check into it, the fracking industry is a money-losing industry.”
“If you have a product which you sell for $1, but it costs you $1.50 to produce, how long will you stay in business?”
The mining sector is also a significant driver of B.C.’s economy in general and, in particular in the Northwest.
Ross said that currently, however, it isn’t going to be easy to leverage exploration and mining into short- and medium-term economic benefit, given that mining projects can often take 15 or more years to even just find a mine.
“The current government revised B.C. Environmental Assessment Act and made it very vague and made it more open to interpretation in terms of how to get a project fully permitted,” he said.
Ross said that he thinks the KM LNG, which has yet to have a final investment decision, and the LNG Canada project now underway are probably going to be the last linear major projects that B.C. will see in the next 20 years, due to the difficulties and costs that come with trying to line up permits and environmental assessments both within the province and for cross-province projects.
“In today’s day-and-age, for a major project, if you want to do a full-blown environmental assessment process, you’d better come with at least $20 million in pocket that you know you’re not going to get back. Just to get your certificate,” Ross said. “The current government has made it so difficult to actually get any permitting in place or get the environmental certificates that I don’t think anybody’s going to want to invest in B.C. on that scale.”
Ross added that he’s been looking at more non-linear projects, ones that are site-specific and don’t cross too many jurisdictions, because he said those will have an easier time getting approved than ones that need the approval of many jurisdictions and environmental assessments.
Holzbauer said there are alternative, innovative approaches to mining that could be used in the Northwest.
“In Quebec, they actually have a couple old mines which they reactivated for lithium production for batteries,” he said. “Even some of the waste materials which are waste from old mines, they’re looking at them to produce what they call the trace elements or rare elements for battery production.”
Holzbauer noted that Canada is one of only a few countries in the Ring of Fire without a developed geothermal industry — something B.C.’s geologists could work on instead of mining.
Halbauer said the Tahltan Nation has set an excellent example for how mineral projects can be implemented.
“They have partnered with those exploration companies and mining companies that are willing to work with them to take a very Tahltan-centred approach to ensure that their community members are trained, that they are ready to do the work, that the environment is protected in ways that matter to them,” she said. “The Tahltan Nation has said ‘We’re not anti-business, we’re not anti-mining, but this is our home, and we’re going to do it in a way that makes our home sustainable, and raises our people up.’”