Resource development a rocky road for feds

The federal government's plans to streamline and simplify environmental regulations, particularly for energy projects, risks provoking the same kind of confrontational standoff seen in the 1990s over logging on B.C.'s west coast.

Government on collision course with environmental groups and First Nations

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, seen on Friday, is the face of the government's efforts to streamline and simplify environmental regulations. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the government's plan for "responsible resource development" (RRD) is shaping up to be one infernal construction project.

The goal of the plan is laudable: simplify the maze of regulatory impediments that slow down the start of major industrial projects. The centrepiece of RRD is a complete overhaul of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

"We have a very positive piece of legislation," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told CBC News.

The plan is "based on a number of key themes," Oliver said. "One is to increase environmental protection, the other is to deepen consultation with aboriginals, and the third is to make this system – which is old, dated, duplicative, inefficient – more modern."

But with RRD, it's the details of the plan and the rhetoric around it that burn.

"Radicals" in the way

In an interview airing on CBC Radio's The House Saturday, environment minister Peter Kent told host Evan Solomon the government has been concerned that charitable agencies have been used "to launder offshore foreign funds for inappropriate use against Canadian interest."

The fiery language started in January, the day before the joint review panel looking into the Northern Gateway pipeline began.

Northern Gateway would bring Alberta bitumen to oil tankers in Kitimat on the B.C. coast  from just outside Edmonton for shipment to energy-hungry Asian economic juggernauts.

Oliver branded opponents to the project, and environmentalists in particular, "radicals" whose sole purpose in participating in such inquiries is to impede the economic development of Canada.

These "radicals" funded by "foreign special-interest groups" are getting in the way of jobs that would pay the taxes that keep Canada's medicare system healthy and other social programs working, he said.

A slow drip of details about what the government had planned came out over the next four months.

Environmental assessments were to be streamlined and have fixed timelines. Panels already underway would have those new timelines retroactively applied. Environmental charities would come under greater scrutiny for their political activities. Those who testified at hearings had to be directly affected by the projects.

The list went on, and the tempers of those explicitly and implicitly targeted by the details started to boil.

"War in the woods" flashback

"I came home and decided to work on these issues because of Minister Oliver's letter in The Globe and Mail. At the time, I thought: OK, this is a government that is declaring war on not only environmental charities but on any citizen who doesn't support their oil agenda," Tzeporah Berman said.

The career environmentalist, who gave up an overseas position directing Greenpeace International's climate and energy program, is no stranger to scraps like this. She was the face and voice of the movement to save British Columbia's Clayoquot Sound from logging in the early 1990s.

The parallels between what was called "the war in the woods" and the current pipeline battles are hard to miss.

An anti-logging protester is carried away by RCMP after being arrested for logging trucks at the entrance to Clayoquot Valley in July 1993. New tensions over energy development projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline threaten to spark similar standoffs. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

Pristine wilderness, inhabited and harvested by First Nations people, was threatened with destruction by industrial development.

With RRD, at least, the government makes a point of sounding conciliatory when it comes to Canada's First Nations. On more than one occasion, Oliver has reiterated the government's "moral and constitutional" obligation to consult First Nations.

The government has put money where his mouth is: $13.6 million was set aside in the budget for consultation on big industrial projects. The problem for the government is that First Nations don't buy it.

"Never have we seen anything where a government is so hell-bent on pushing the project through," said Guujaaw, the president of the Haida Nation.

A veteran of B.C.'s logging battles, Guujaaw was instrumental in saving the southern half of Haida Gwaii – what used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands off B.C.'s northwest coast – from the woodsman's saw.

His work – first in protest and then in collaboration with opponents – led to the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park and a logging regime managed jointly by the province and his people.

For First Nations B.C.'s west coast and Interior, Northern Gateway is a threat to the land and sea with which they are intimately connected. It's not that they are against energy development. They just don't want oilsands oil flowing through their territories.

No matter how safe tanker navigation becomes, they fear one spill in B.C.'s fjords could mean the destruction of an ecosystem that has fed and housed their people for thousands of years.

"You know when you have governments [provincial and federal] and they both live a long ways away from here, we're the ones who live with the consequence," he said. "They're quite willing to take the risks with our lives and our livelihoods here."

Time for compromise?

Berman and Guujaaw's take is shared by most of the government's opponents, who believe RRD is all about developing the oilsands and finding new customers for a Canadian resource that is captive to the American market.

Bob Page doesn't have a problem with that. The University of Calgary professor is a veteran of Alberta's oil patch and very well connected with the province's energy heavyweights. He holds an endowed chair from TransAlta, one of Canada's biggest electric utilities, in environmental management and sustainability.

What worries Page is the "to the ramparts" rhetoric he is hearing from both sides.

"This could lead us to the kind of impasse where we do see civil disobedience and we do see a total impasse in terms of getting public acceptance for projects," he told CBC News.

He said he doesn't know whether the government is willing to compromise on this issue, but said the industry isn't at peace with the way things are playing out.

"They're dealing with a public level of opposition which makes it very difficult for them to operate. And therefore the need for compromise comes through much more clearly," he said.

Page sees a detour on the highway to hell that the government, environmentalists and First Nations are racing down. It involves the world's highest standards of pipeline construction and safety, regulated by Ottawa. It would also include a bigger equity share from industry for First Nations.

And finally, where the Northern Gateway pipeline is concerned, if B.C. bears the risks of spills, Alberta should share more of the royalties.

But from Page's perspective, the federal government has to make the first move toward the detour.

"We have to respect and we have to understand the depth of feeling in both the environmental and the First Nations communities and we have to address that," he said. "We cannot just override it with federal legislation."