BY CHRIS BRAUER
British Columbia’s new NDP Premier and cabinet have been formally sworn in as the party forms government for the first time in 16 years. There are eleven women and eleven men and, while Premier Horgan handed key responsibilities to many Metro Vancouver and Lower Mainland MLAs, there were appointees from Vancouver Island, the north, and the interior as well. One of these was Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall. Mungall is now the new Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
“It’s a huge honour,” said Mungall. “I’m excited to serve British Columbians in this position, and I will be focusing my attention on how to make life more affordable for everyone while building a strong economy and providing good paying jobs.”
Critics point out that Mungall, described as a former city councillor, community activist and manager for a non-profit, may lack any particular expertise in the energy, mines and petroleum industry, but others point to Horgan’s considerable knowledge on those files during his years as an opposition for energy and mines.
Mungall is quick to counter. “Unlike my predecessor, I am entering this position with governing experience. As a Nelson City Councillor, I continually researched issues pertaining to Nelson Hydro, which own and operate their own dam and transition lines.”
Geographically, Mungall believes it makes sense to put a Kootenay representative in the position. “Think about my riding, and the Kootenays in general. We produce 50% of BC Hydro’s hydroelectric power. We have some of the largest mines. So it’s a natural fit to put a Kootenay person there.”
Mungall will inherit the NDP’s promise to put the $9-billion Site C dam up before a review, which Horgan reiterated would happen immediately. Site preparation on the new dam began in 2015, and the work is now 20% complete, with $1.75 billion already spent on the project. Contracts worth a total of $4 billion have been awarded for work that is either just starting or not yet begun. Although the government would save $4 billon to $5 billion not building the dam, there would be expenses associated with halting it. “A review of Site C should have happened a long time ago, but with the BC Green Party we will be tackling the issue very soon,” said Mungall.
Responsible for looking at reforming BC Hydro’s board and senior leadership, as well as grappling with a promised NDP ‘freeze’ on immediate rate increases, Mungall has already witnessed big changes. Jessica McDonald, the president and CEO of BC Hydro, was fired last week. The decision came after Ken Peterson was appointed to replace Brad Bennett as chair of BC Hydro. McDonald was named president and CEO of BC Hydro in 2014 and eagerly pushed ahead the Site C dam. The decision to fire McDonald was made by the BC Hydro board.
“We’ve made commitments to deal with the rates,” said Mungall. “We’ll be dealing with that right away, and I know there’s a whole host of issues the ministry is putting together right now that are going to be at the top of my desk.”
While inter-province pipelines fall under federal jurisdiction, and Prime Minister Trudeau endorsed the project last year, the Kinder Morgan’s $7.4 billion Trans Mountain oil pipeline is opposed by both the BC NDP and Green parties. Blocking the expansion project was a key election promise made by the new NDP government but Premier Horgan’s cabinet hasn’t yet indicated what its first steps will be to honour that commitment.
Mungall will also have to juggle a number of other election platform promises including a mining jobs task force and potentially reviving liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects. With George Heyman, now Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, Mungall will decide the fate of the proposed Ajax mine, which needs nods of approval from both the province and Ottawa to proceed.
Mungall, who has hit the ground running, said her first job is to sit down with staff and review the ministry’s priority files. “I can’t really comment on many of these issues just yet,” said Mungall as she was preparing to board her plane to Victoria. “There are lots of big issues, which is not a surprise to anyone in British Columbia, but I can’t wait to tackle them.”