VICTORIA - Premier Christy Clark is about to find out her plans to chip away at the mountain of bureaucracy facing mining developments in British Columbia won't be an easy climb if environmental groups have any say in the matter.
Opening eight new mines is a key plank of Clark's jobs strategy, the most important policy initiative she's launched since becoming premier early this year, and last week, the Liberals introduced minor changes to the Mines Act.
The move has triggered an avalanche of protest from the Sierra Club of B.C. which accused the government of looking to clear the way for mining companies to bulldoze the province.
Sierra Club president George Heyman said Clark's Liberals are heading in the opposite direction of public opinion if they loosen regulations to open more mines.
"We're not anti-mining, I want to be clear about that," said Heyman. "But if the government is going to stake B.C.'s economic future on mining, then we should do it in an environmentally responsible way that's transparent, science-based and has good environmental assessment processes."
He said British Columbians oppose relaxed approval standards for mining developments and fear the province will make sacrifices today that could cause future regrets.
Besides eight new mines over the next four years, Clark has said there will be upgrades to nine existing ones.
She has said she wants to lessen the regulatory burden on mining companies, while maintaining vigorous environmental standards on their operations.
Mines Minister Rich Coleman said the Mines Act amendments introduced last week will allow mining companies to conduct low-risk explorations without going through a lengthy permitting process.
He said the activities covered by the changes are focused on small drill programs that don't require road-building. He said the government plans to consult further with First Nations, industry, the public and government agencies.
"To go through a one or two-year process would make no sense for that," said Coleman.
"There has to be a way we can streamline that. We need to be able to understand we're going to hold it to a high standard but it doesn't need to go through a significant process as if you were processing a mine, which is a multi-year process."
A recent Mining Association of B.C. report concluded mining in British Columbia generated almost $9 billion in activities last year, including 45,703 direct and indirect jobs.
Government records show that since 2001, there have been 38 mine project applications submitted to the province's Environmental Assessment Office. Of those 38 applications, 10 received environmental go-aheads, and three of those 10 or currently in operation
But environmentalists like Heyman say the province has made some alarming moves in an effort to encourage the industry.
He noted the B.C. government's approval of a mining permit for the controversial Taseko copper mine project near Williams Lake that included using a lake for tailings disposal.
The federal government disagreed with the province and rejected environmental approval for the mine, but the proposal now is undergoing another review process.
Local First Nations are vehemently opposed to the Taseko mine.
"We should all take a step back and take into account certain values that are strongly held by British Columbians, one of which is you don't drain or kill lakes in order to dispose of mine tailings," said Heyman.
University of B.C. mining engineering Prof. Michael Hitch said mining is British Columbia's new destiny, replacing forestry and the fishery as major resource revenue and job generators.
"Ecotourism is awesome, but you know what? It's not going to pay for socialized health care for the province of British Columbia," he said.
"We have a standard of living which we enjoy in this province and in order to have this standard of living we need to pay for it somehow."
Hitch said Canada's mining industry is regarded as the most efficient and environmentally safe in the world, but the B.C. government needs to do a better job telling people how mining works and how it contributes to the province.
Coleman rejected any suggestions the government is pandering to the mining industry.
"If you look at how long it takes to get a mine approved in British Columbia, it's just the opposite," he said. "Our mining industry is recognized as one of the best stewards of the land of any mining industry in the world."
Teck Resources spokeswoman Marcia Smith said the copper and steel-making coal that is mined in British Columbia is in great worldwide demand and companies are looking to expand.
"In B.C., Teck has about 6,500 people and we will hire about 1,100 new people in our company next year in B.C. alone," she said.
Teck has applied to expand its operations at its five steel-making coal mines in the Sparwood-Fernie areas of southeastern B.C. and is considering re-opening the closed open-pit Quintette coal mine at Tumbler Ridge.