OFC Scoop 3: Dec 2014

Policy Priority Update: What’s the “big picture” for LNG in BC?

While legislators sit through BC’s first fall session since 2011 to pass legislation essential for LNG proponents to make “final investment decisions”, northern BC First Nations were laying down their own laws about what it’s going to take.

In early November, Chiefs from four Skeena region nations issued a statement opposing the proposed Petronas LNG project on Lelu Island, in the heart of the Skeena estuary. The estuary is considered crucial habitat for the salmon of the entire Skeena River system so anything that would impact that habitat affects the fishing rights of First Nations throughout the watershed. The provincial and federal governments considered upstream nations to be too distant from the site to be impacted.

Sign the Lelu Declaration

First Nations throughout much of northern BC have been vocal about the need for a “big picture” look at the potential impacts – ecological, social, cultural and economic – of this new industry. Last spring Treaty 8 First Nations – in BC’s northeast where increased fracking will feed the demands of the LNG plants on the coast – explicitly called for a regional strategic environmental assessment, or RSEA, as a condition of their approval.

Similarly, Coastal First Nations have also called for RSEAs to better understand and minimize the cumulative effects of natural gas development, transport and processing on the environment and communities across BC. This has been echoed by the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. These First Nations are clear that they are not against LNG development, but they need much more information to ensure they and other BC communities can make decisions based on the best science and traditional knowledge when it comes to where, and how fast, the industry develops.

Last year, the province’s budget consultation process heard repeatedly on its northern tour that the “project-by-project” approach of environmental assessment was not working for northern communities. Especially when so many projects are still speculative, the time is now to identify bigger picture values and thresholds – from wildlife habitat to be fragmented up to five pipeline corridors to small communities facing an influx of thousands of temporary construction workers putting a strain on municipal services and infrastructure.

With this priority, OFC members are working to support the demands of First Nations and communities in the region to have a strong voice in the shaping of how this new industry will – and won’t – change the things that are most important to their long term well-being.

 

Fall Session Update

A rare fall sitting of the Legislature was (almost) all LNG, all the time: out of the eight bills introduced in this session were LNG-related. Even rarer, most of the session’s substantive legislative debate was environmentally-focused, courtesy of Bill 2, the “Greenhouse Gas Industrial Reporting and Control Act”.

While Bill 6, the taxation and royalty regime for LNG, got most of the media attention, it hadn’t even made it into committee when the Legislature convened for its final week. Government and Opposition agreed on a debate schedule for that last week, thereby avoiding a motion of closure. In a surprise move the Opposition voted in favour of Bill 6, after criticising Government for cutting the maximum tax in half from what they’d proposed in the spring. Both Government and Opposition voted against a motion from Independent Andrew Weaver to delay passing the bill until more study on its benefits for British Columbians could be done.

Bill 2, setting limits on carbon pollution from proposed LNG plants, took the lion’s share of the law-making process this session.

As noted by the Pembina Institute, Bill 2 sets a threshold for carbon pollution that’s better than standard industry practice, though how industry ultimately performs against it will depend on regulations and other details about offsets that aren’t yet set.

Significant shortcomings in the bill were well explored by the Opposition and Independent MLAs. Opposition critic for the Environment, Spencer Chandra-Herbert, focused his concerns on the fact that 70% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with LNG come from the upstream extraction, processing and transport of natural gas, none of which are addressed by this legislation. If not addressed, it will likely be impossible for BC to achieve its legislated GHG reduction targets.

Independent MLA Andrew Weaver pointed out that Bill 2 takes an “emissions intensity” approach, which in itself will not reduce absolute emissions. Both Weaver and the Opposition proposed several amendments to the legislation but no changes were accepted.

In defense of her bill, Environment Minister Mary Polak acknowledged that upstream emissions were not addressed and that BC’s GHG emissions would see an increase as a result of this new industry. However, she sees this as an opportunity to develop new policies and mechanisms that will lead the industry globally in reducing upstream emissions. We’ll all be watching the February Throne Speech for an indication that Government is embracing this opportunity.

Bill 8, the “Protected Areas of British Columbia Amendment Act (No. 2), 2014”, was also of environmental interest. It legislated the removal of 64ha from the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park, at the request of the Nisga’a First Nation, to facilitate an LNG pipeline corridor. It, too, was passed at the end of the session, having received very little debate in the Legislature.

 

BC Budget Roadshow: Climate, Clean Energy, and Parks!

As they do each year, a bi-partisan committee (six Liberals and four NDP) hit the road this fall to hear from British Columbians about how they think public dollars should be raised and spent. Some of the recommendations from the unanimous report that resulted are very welcome!

More than 500 individuals and organizations made presentations or submitted letters or videos, and more than 1200 people filled out the on-line survey on the government website. It’s all recorded for posterity – you can see the list of participants at the end.

Of the 538 submissions heard or received, several were highlighted by the committee in their report and various recommendations to their fellow caucus members were made. This year included several related to climate change and clean energy, such as:

  • Build on the success of previous clean energy and energy conservation initiatives (like LiveSmartBC and the Innovative Clean Energy Fund) as an economic development strategy;
  • Secure funding for public transit and transportation;
  • Provide greater incentives for election vehicles; and
  • Consider expanding the carbon tax to cover measurable emissions currently omitted from the tax [this one is especially important in the face of potentially massive increases in fracking to feed prospective LNG facilities].

As well, the committee gave a shout out to efforts to establish a new National Park in the South Okanagan-Similkameen, and recommended the province consider entering into a park feasibility study with the federal government.

The results from the survey – completed by 1264 people – may also raise some government eyebrows. When asked what the best way is to maintain a balanced budget, almost three-quarters of respondents preferred raising taxes over reducing spending or “maintaining the current balance”. As well, more than 60% said raising taxes was their preferred option to meet growing demand for public services. More than 80% said cutting programs and services was their least favourite option to fund needed infrastructure investments.

The degree to which the outcome influences what actually ends up in the February budget is questionable, but it’s one of the very few opportunities British Columbians have to speak their minds to a captive audience of MLAs from both sides of the house. And the recommendations are there in government black-and-white, which can at least be an opening to a deeper conversation with decision makers.

Don’t see your view represented? Make sure you’re signed up on our list directly to get a heads up for the next year!

 

Is it going to get chilly for non-profits?

The innocuous-sounding BC Society Act governs the conduct of non-profits big and small, from environmental groups to seniors’ advocates to animal shelters to health organizations and faith groups. While an update to the Act would be welcome, the draft legislation released earlier this fall proposed an alarmingly heavy hammer that could be used to intimidate many into silence.

In August of this year, the Ministry of Finance released a “White Paper” – draft legislation – on how it intends to overhaul the laws governing non-profits under a new Societies Act. Much of the proposed legislation is an appropriate update; however, a key section would leave many of BC’s 27,000 societies (few of which are charities) vulnerable to threats and intimidation. Section 99 of the draft Societies Act would allow “an appropriate person” (undefined) to seek a court order against any society that person felt was acting in a way “detrimental to the public interest” (also undefined).

In a submission signed onto by almost 60 organizations, it was noted that:

A great many – probably the majority – of British Columbia’s societies are run by volunteers, on very limited budgets, without experience with the law or the resources to hire lawyers. Even larger and more sophisticated societies do not generally have funds set aside to hire lawyers or justify their view of the “public interest” in court. We believe that court actions filed under s. 99 have the potential to intimidate many societies, and to divert resources away from the valuable work being carried out by societies.

In a review of the White Paper the BC Law Institute noted that applying an “oppression remedy” generally reserved for corporate situations to the general public carried an

inherent risk that the remedy could be abused. The risk that concerned BCLI was that a disgruntled person or organization could brandish this provision as a weapon against a society. Given the costs of proceeding in the civil courts, this may be enough to force the society into an unattractive settlement or into financial failure.

Given that so many BC non-profits don’t have the capacity to risk a court action, the legislation would inevitably have a ‘chilling effect’ on the work of many who would shrink back from the courageous and sometimes challenging positions needed to help our society evolve and better serve its many diverse elements.

While the public comment period has officially closed, it’s important that government hear concerns about any attempts to constrain a vibrant civil society. Go here to send a letter; even better, ask your local MLA for a meeting to let him or her know about your concerns. This legislation could be introduced as soon as this coming spring session.