Federal minister aims to reform Ottawa’s costly regulatory processes, but First Nations say plan will cause more unrest

By Joel McKay

Ottawa is on the wrong foot if it thinks that reforming cumbersome environmental regulations is the key to speeding up the development of major resource projects in B.C., say First Nations leaders.

The biggest challenge facing the resource sector in B.C. today is the horde of unsettled land claims that flare up whenever a major new mine, pipeline or dam is proposed.

“There’s no question about it … the elephant in the room is the unresolved un-extinguished aboriginal title issues in the province,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

His comments came after federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was in Vancouver last week calling for changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA); a system he said is “needlessly complex.”

Major project proponents, notably from the mining and oil and gas sector, have for years complained about the often lengthy, duplicative and costly CEAA process.

It appears that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has finally started to listen.

In an interview, Oliver told Business in Vancouver the system is filled with “excess delay” and tends to include projects that are environmentally “inconsequential.”

“One of the things we want to do is eliminate duplication … there would be cases where Ottawa would back off. We might, for example, say, ‘OK, this is a review that British Columbia has the capability of doing so let them do it.’”

Oliver added that the government is seeking “specific enforceable timelines” for environmental assessments.

Driving the proposed changes are the billions of dollars the private sector wants to invest in natural resource projects across Canada in the coming years.

In B.C., Oliver estimated that $84 billion could be invested in new natural resource projects in the next decade.

Canada’s western-most province is also the lynchpin in the Conservative government’s strategy to export raw materials to the Asia Pacific region, notably China.

In his speech, Oliver pointed out that the Asian juggernaut is expected to be the world’s largest oil consumer by 2030, most of which will have to be imported.

On top of that, China also consumes a healthy portion of the world’s nickel, copper, zinc, iron ore and aluminum – commodities that are mined in B.C. and across Canada.

But if Canada wants to realize that economic benefit, Oliver said it needs to reform its regulatory processes and reduce project delays.

However, uncertainty over disputed land claims continues to tarnish B.C.’s reputation as a top mining jurisdiction, according to the Fraser Institute’s latest survey of mining companies, which ranked the province behind politically volatile nations such as Russia, Egypt and Peru.

First Nations, who now team up with environmental groups, are also the chief opponents to Enbridge’s (TSX:ENB) $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline, Taseko Mines’ (TSX:TKO) $1.1 billion New Prosperity mine and BC Hydro’s $7.9 billion Site C hydroelectric dam.

Last week, after 20 years of planning, the provincial government finally approved an environmental certificate for the Jumbo ski resort in the Kootenays, but the Ktunaxa Nation Council has vowed to continue to fight the project.

B.C. is somewhat of an anomaly in Canada in that it has more than 200 distinct aboriginal bands but only a handful of treaties.

The BC Treaty Commission has allocated $533 million in negotiation funding during the last two decades – and generated only two treaties.

Phillip said the Conservative government’s move to reform CEAA would further damage its relationship with First Nations.

“This backward movement on the part of Canada and British Columbia is only going to drive these issues into the courts and out onto the land itself,” said Phillip.

Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of Canada, called Oliver’s proposed reforms “exactly” what the industry needs, adding that the government can improve CEAA and its relationship with First Nations at the same time. •