The recent disaster of the collapse of the Mount Polley mine tailings pond may force the BC Liberals to finally revisit a key policy decision made early on in its first mandate: the cutting back of environmental protection measures.
Since 2001, critics have denounced the province for turning a blind eye to environmental protection, and have long warned a disaster was just around the corner.
Well, that disaster has now occurred.
As of this writing, it is still not clear why the tailings pond failed and dumped 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of mine slurry into Polley and Quesnel Lakes.
Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett has denied that a lack of inspections played any role in the pond collapse and has insisted the number of annual mine inspections is pretty well the same as five years ago.
He may well be proven right that inspections (or a lack thereof) played no role in the tailings pond collapse, but the Mount Polley disaster has nevertheless re-focused attention on the BC Liberals controversial historical record when it comes to protecting the environment.
That controversy pretty much started right after Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals were swept into power in 2001. It was obvious early on the BC Liberals did not share the same zeal for environmental issues that characterized much of what the previous government, formed by the NDP, seemed to be all about. The environment ministry lost a quarter of its staff.
Not only did the BC Liberals cut resources for environmental protection, it implemented a fundamental and philosophical shift when it came to this issue. It essentially moved to a self-regulating and self-enforcement model for natural resource companies.
Penalties were increased for violations of environmental protection rules and regulations, but companies were essentially allowed to police themselves.
Critics predicted this would translate into more incidents that could threaten environmental values.
Indeed, over the years, there have been a number of tailings pond failures and breaches of dams, including the collapse of an earthen dam near Oliver in 2010 that destroyed five homes.
Premier Christy Clark has made it clear her government’s core philosophical value is to “grow the economy,” particularly through the natural resource extraction industry. In particular, it has championed the mining industry and the natural gas sector.
However, as practices such as fracking become more controversial and as various infrastructure around the province (such as dams, tailing ponds and pipelines, for example) gradually age, her government will undoubtedly feel more pressure to ensure more serious environmental disasters do not occur.
While the BC Liberals rightly feel their surprise re-election in 2013 was strongly tied to its pro-industry platform and a much weaker pro-industry platform put forth by the NDP, they may risk losing support if there are any more major accidents.
As Finance Minister Mike de Jong puts together next year’s budget, he may ponder whether it is politically prudent to revisit the resources he has allocated to two ministries
given short shrift in his three-year fiscal plan.
The environment ministry is scheduled for a tiny ($6 million) lift to its current annual budget of $134 million. That doesn’t suggest any major increase for environmental protection measures, such as inspections and enforcement.
And the energy and mines ministry, which conducts those tailing ponds inspections, has its small annual budget of $21 million frozen for the next two years. Given inflation and other cost pressures, it’s hard to see how that translates into more inspections.
Clark has tried to distance herself from her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, in a number of areas since taking over from him.
Perhaps she will use the Mount Polley disaster as an opportunity to distance herself from Campbell even further by implementing a more aggressive approach to environmental protection.
The government will understandably never abandon its support for natural resource industries, including mining. But there’s not much political downside to painting itself with a greener brush.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. Keith.Baldrey@globalnews