Earlier this month, Leona Aglukkaq, the federal environment minister, released her decision on the proposed Taseko New Prosperity Mine near Fish Lake, B.C. Based on the environmental assessment produced by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) she concluded that the project "is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects", thereby scuttling the project for a second time.
Back in 2010, the former environment minister, Jim Prentice, also turned down the proposed gold-copper mine after receiving a CEAA environmental assessment which he described as "scathing."
Obviously the company was disappointed with the decision and issued a press release in response stating that "Taseko will proceed with the federal judicial review which commenced in December. The judicial review challenges certain Panel findings and the Panel's failure to comply with principles of procedural fairness."
But more surprising was the reaction of the B.C. government. In a CBC television interview Donna Barnett, MLA for Cariboo-Chilcotin, was asked:
"Do you understand why the government made this decision." To which she replied, "I don't. This time and last time, both were environmentally friendly and I'm very disillusioned with the federal government."
When the reporter further noted, "But the environmental review board said it wasn't environmentally friendly." The MLA from Cariboo-Chilcotin responded, "Well, you know, there's lots of questions about that. And I think the whole process, in my opinion, was flawed."
Premier Christy Clark sent B.C. Minister of Environment Mary Polak her Mandate Letter on June 10, 2013. One of the first priorities of the new government was: "To eliminate red tape so that we can get to yes on economic development without needless delay."
I was concerned that getting to "Yes" might preclude "No" being an acceptable answer. So during budget estimates on July 11, 2013, I asked Polak:
"I have a few questions for the minister. I'd like to start by quoting from the minister's mandate letter, where it says that one of the goals is "to eliminate red tape so that we can get to yes on economic development without needless delay."
My question to the minister is: does that raise some concerns that it's in some sense precluding an outcome of an environmental assessment if your mandate is to get to yes, as opposed to determining whether yes is the appropriate answer?"
The minister responded:
"It doesn't, because of the phrase "without needless delay." What we have seen in the past, at times, in government is process for the sake of process, rather than process that gets to an answer. I don't see that as indicating it requires a granting of a certificate or a permit. What it does require is that we get that answer without having, as the letter says, needless delay."
I was reassured.
The CEAA was tasked with providing a detailed analysis of the potential impacts of the proposed Taseko New Prosperity Mine. Their work provided the foundation upon which Aglukkaq based her decision. This is a lovely example of "evidence-based decision-making."
But I am deeply troubled by a recent quote made by Bill Bennett, B.C.'s minister of energy and mines, who also seems not to accept "no" as an answer. He told the CBC Early Edition on Feb. 27 (starting at 2:10:45):
"I think Taseko has to find a way to provide evidence that is scientific in nature that shows you can build a tailings pond two kilometres away from Fish Lake and you can build it in such a way as to not have it leach into Fish Lake and contaminate Fish Lake."
His statement provides an illustrative example of decision-based evidence making.
British Columbia is blessed with a vast array of natural resources; mining has and will continue to have a profound influence on the B.C. economy. But the reason why we have environmental assessments is to ensure that new mine developments meet certain criteria. Cutting red tape means expediting the assessment process, not undermining it.
Ironically, in 2012 the proposed Morrison Lake mine near Smithers passed an environmental assessment. Yet the B.C. government rejected the environmental assessment and so stopped Pacific Booker Minerals from developing the project.
Later, the court overturned this decision as the process was not deemed to be procedurally unfair. The Morrison Lake mine project is still in limbo.
In the case of the proposed Taseko New Prosperity Mine, the CEAA Environmental Assessment makes it clear: No means no, not a pathway to yes.