Nature Wise Columnist Bob Handfield

Nature Wise: Pushback against resource development projects

Bob Handfield is president of the South Okanagan Naturalists' Club

Should we trust the resource industry?

Canadians have enjoyed a standard of living that is the envy of much of the world for more than 100 years, thanks mostly to our abundant natural resources and the industries that have exploited those resources. However, over the past 10 to 15 years there has been tremendous pushback to the development of our natural resources.

Have we lost faith in the ability of business to properly and safely develop our resources? And an equally important question is have we lost faith in the ability of governments to properly oversee how and where resource companies develop Canada’s resources?

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It seems to me that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes, and with good reason, as illustrated by just two examples.

The first pertains to the oil and gas industry and is a perfect example of why the answer to both questions is yes.

In 2012 and 2014, a subsidiary of Petronas (the Malaysian state-owned oil giant) built two unauthorized dams north of Fort St. John in connection with fracking operations being carried out in the region. The dams are used to store the vast quantities of water that are used in fracking operations. These are not little dams; these are massive structures. The Lily Dam (the larger of the two) has a berm nearly 23 metres high—that’s about 76 feet—about the height of a seven-storey building. The smaller of the two is the height of a five-storey building.

Prior to building these dams the company was required to apply for water licences and obtain other provincial authorizations including environmental assessments. This was never done. Subsequently, in 2017, the company asked to have the dams retroactively approved and—wait for it—in July of 2018, the province approved the dams without any environmental assessments. Ecojustice, an organization devoted to upholding environmental laws through court actions, has taken the B.C. government to court arguing that it does not have the authority to retroactively approve major projects without an environmental assessment as required by B.C. law. The case will be heard in B.C. Supreme Court in October.

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Freedom of Information requests by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed that Petronas has built at least 16 unauthorized dams in northern B.C. and other oil and gas companies have also built unauthorized dams. The provincial regulators appear to have turned a blind eye to all of this activity. It would appear that we can’t trust the companies to play by the rules and we can’t trust the government to enforce the rules.

The second example is the collapse of the Mount Polley tailings dam and subsequent pollution of Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and ultimately Quesnel Lake and the Cariboo River. Despite this being labelled “the largest tailings dam collapse in Canadian history” no regulatory actions by way of lawsuits were undertaken by either the provincial or federal governments. The province had three years to file charges under the Environmental Management Act and the Mines Act but failed to do so. Under the Federal Fisheries Act, the deadline for filing charges expired on Aug. 4 of this year, although apparently other charges could be brought over the next few years. In a story dated June 29 the Globe and Mail reported that a federal joint task force recommended in April of this year that charges be brought against the company but no charges were laid prior to the Aug. 4 deadline.

A formal investigation into the failure concluded that both the design and construction of the dam were faulty. This is another failure by industry and an apparent failure by any level of government to hold anyone to account.

No wonder there is pushback against resource development projects.

Full disclosure: I worked in the mining industry as a geologist for most of my career. I am not against all resource developments; I am against companies who flout the rules and equally against governments who fail to enforce the rules.

Bob Handfield is president of The South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the club.

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