Overwhelming. That’s how Judy Gerow from Kitselas characterized the effect of the seemingly endless number of resource projects being proposed for northern BC. The hundreds of people who gathered at the REM Lee Theatre Nov. 13 to hear the panel of speakers gathered by MP Nathan Cullen agreed with her.
There are presently five major liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects being proposed. There are six other potential LNG pipeline proponents. That’s on top of the Northwest Transmission Line that is being built and the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline that is being proposed for Alberta tarsands oil.
Every major proposal raises the same questions. What will be the effect on the community and the surrounding environment? What are the advantages? Are they short-term or long-term? What are the risks? Are the risks being adequately planned for? What do we stand to lose? As the impacts pile up, what are the cumulative effects?
Most communities are ill-equipped to consider these questions, let alone answer them. These are decisions that are made at the federal or provincial level of government. Municipalities have little role, citizens less. Typically, there may be an open house where project proponents are on hand to speak about their project. The review process may require them to make the proposal publicly available, usually at the library, for a limited time. Occasionally, a company may open a community office so that their information is available there.
But to be well and truly involved, communities need much more than that. They need far more information than the company’s proposal. They need to know how to get it and above all the time to review and discuss it. Citizens, interest groups and local government have the concerns but they seldom have the expertise, resources or time to consider them. How to level the playing field?
Why not have every company that proposes a project that will have a large impact on our community contribute to the operation of an independent, local consultation centre that will make it possible for us to consider and discuss the proposal? The core mandate of such centre could be threefold: to make proposal information available in a continuing way, to collect related science and to assist the community in asking questions arising, enabling ongoing discussion between the community and the companies that are proposing to impact it. Note that this does not create any level of community approval for proposals. It simply creates an informed conversation.
How would such a centre be created and who would be involved? Bring together the stakeholders to form a community board, with representatives from local government, First Nations, the Chamber of Commerce, forestry, the Health Authority, educational institutions, social service agencies, environmental/conservation groups and recreational groups. Hire staff skilled in community development and research. We have a model for just that. The Kalum Land and Resource Management Plan was developed through extensive community consultations during the 90s and continues to inform the balance between forestry and other land use activities.
Companies that propose major projects and therefore major changes in the local landscape may get all the requisite permits and approvals from government but that does not meant that they have the social licence to operate here. Social licence comes from companies encouraging local input before and during development. This licence is one of the most important for companies and it can only be created through meaningful consultation. Having that conversation builds understanding relationships and creates benefits and certainty for both communities and businesses. Communities become able to have a real and informed voice in resource projects and companies receive the opportunity to build support and receive social license for their activity and its impact.
Let companies put their money where our mouth needs to be. Communities affected most should have a larger voice.