Thursday, August 26, 2004

Time for a truce in B.C.'s brewing resource battles

VICTORIA - I've got nothing against Randy Bachman, and I'd be keen to see him and Neil Young in a benefit concert up in Duncan next month.
But the rock stars are a good symbol for a developing problem in B.C. Clashes between the people who earn their money in resource industries and those who have concerns about how those industries operate are becoming increasingly divisive and bitter.
I'm not choosing sides. (Though I acknowledge a consistent partiality to the underdog, which in this case generally means the people involved in resource industries.)
Mostly, I'd argue we have to get past some of the suspicion and close-mindedness and start talking together as people who share an interest in the future.
Bachman and Young are starring in a big benefit concert for the Crofton Airshed Citizens' Group, formed out of a concern about emissions from Norske Canada's Crofton pulp mill.
The mill has been there for almost 50 years, and Norske employs some 1,000 people in the area, at good wages. People have always grumbled about the mill, but complaints have gotten loudest now, when the mill is cleaner than it's ever been.
What's changed? The trigger for the concern is Norske's plan to start burning shredded tires, chipped railway ties and coal in the mill's boilers, which have been fed with wood chips. The company says the shift would reduce emissions; some in the community have concerns. It's an issue of science, and should be resolved on that basis.
But what has also changed is the arrival of people in the area who came for the view, and the climate, and the lifestyle. They don't need to work the mill; they don't have a cousin or son employed there. They don't really like mills, or mines, or logging, or gas wells.
The airshed group members say they don't want the mill shut down; they just want the environment protected.
But Bachman emailed the environment ministry in January, and suggested all manner of dire consequences unless they padlocked the mill doors. “We will not rest until the Crofton mill is shut down permanently,” he pledged.
His publicist later said he's changed his mind, and doesn't want the mill closed.
But his first reaction matters. Bachman lives on Saltspring Island, in a multi-million-dollar environmentally friendly home. He earned the place, and affluence doesn't bar him from being involved in public policy debates.
But when you can call up Neil Young and get him to come to town, you've got a lot of clout. When you threaten to kill 1,000 jobs, you show a willingness to use that clout recklessly. And that will make other people nervous.
Enter First Dollar. It's a new organization, only a few months old, that wants to stand up for resource industries, the communities that depend on them, and the people who work in them. Leanne Brunt, one of the organizers, says the First Dollar will hold its own party outside the big fundraiser, with kids' games, a picnic and maybe some local performers. First Dollar, which has attracted support from across the province, reflects resource communities' need to push back against people who would too casually push them out of existence.
Across much of B.C. two worlds are noisily colliding over resource industries. Suspicions rise, both sides dig in, and the result is usually destructive.
B.C. has been through this kind of conflict before, with the war in the woods. No one should look back on that destructive time with fondness. Effective societies resolve disputes without splitting into hostile camps. And they maintain the ability to recognize the legitimacy - even urgency - of others' concerns.
There are few absolutes in this debate. Rational trade-offs must be made, and too often the opponents of resource industries - like Bachman in his email - show little willingness to recognize the need for compromise.
Unless we recognize that, and work together, we will all lose.
Footnote: This week's auction of coalbed methane leases in the East Kootenay shows the problem. A bitter battle by opponents, which enlisted Montana politicians, meant energy companies simply decided not to bid. The failure to find common ground - a failure shared by both sides - has robbed the region of a chance at good jobs.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Kootenay coalbed methane big headache for Liberals

VICTORIA - B.C. hasn't even tapped into its newest energy resource, and already the province is in a war of words with the U.S.
The government sees big money and new jobs from coalbed methane, a natural gas found in coal deposits. B.C. has lots of coal, and lots of coalbed methane - perhaps enough to equal 100 years worth of current natural gas production.
So the Liberals have been continuing the effort begun during the NDP years to exploit the gas fields. The first auction of leases, covering land in the East Kootenay, ended this week. Within a few days we should learn how much companies were willing to pay.
But there's a problem. Coalbed methane development is untested in B.C., and a relatively new industry in North America. That means some people are bound to be nervous about damage to the environment.
It's easy enough to find reasons to be concerned.
Conventional natural gas is usually found in large pockets, under pressure. Companies drill a well, the gas flows out and when it's gone they cap the well and move on. It's relatively tidy, and familiar.
But coalbed methane is found within the coal seams, so companies need to drill a lot more holes.
And the methane is usually trapped beneath underground water that must be pumped out before the gas will flow. Clean water is no problem. But if it's contaminated with salt or other pollutants, it has to be pumped back underground to prevent environmental damage.
Some early development efforts in the U.S. did significant environmental damage. But coalbed methane now makes up about five per cent of U.S. gas production, and the companies have about 20 years of experience. With care and appropriate regulation coalbed methane can be safely produced.
Not everyone agrees. The Liberals have run into a wave of opposition to their plan to launch the industry by selling drilling rights in the Kootenays.
Many local people - including municipal politicians - are worried about the number of wells that will have to be drilled and potential environmental damage. They've joined forces with powerful Montana politicians who are concerned about cross-border pollution that would affect Glacier National Park. (Montana has big plans for its own coalbed methane development, but relatively little has happened so far, in part because of the threat of environmental lawsuits.)
Things got worse this week when federal MP David Anderson weighed in on the side of the Americans. Anderson, environment minister until he was dropped by Paul Martin, wrote current Environment Minister Stephane Dion calling for a federal review of B.C.'s plans.
The provincial government argues - convincingly, in my view - that it has taken the necessary steps to ensure development will only go ahead if it's safe, setting a string of conditions on the leases and writing stiff regulations.
The problem is that those claims rely on trust - trust that the rules will be enforced, trust that the government will cancel leases if development is risky. And trust is in short supply.
It's a mess. And one that could have been avoided.
The Kootenay leases are the first ones auctioned off because energy companies said they'd like a shot at the area.
But there are other parts of the province with good potential, where local residents are familiar with the energy industry. Any one would have been a better place to launch the industry, even if the initial return was lower.
This kind of brawl is in no one's interests. Uncertainty about the legal threats to development will force down the price companies are prepared to bid for the leases. Future wrangling will damage the province's reputation among resource companies as a safe place to invest.
The government has held consultations in the region, and sent a delegation to Montana.
But it hasn't been able to sell coalbed development.
That challenge will be every bit as touch as the technical hurdles.
Footnote: Energy Minister Richard Neufeld is responsible for coalbed methane. He's been more combative than conciliatory with both local citizens and Montana politicians, questioning everything from their motives to their judgment. So far, it's been an ineffective approach, reinforcing the impression the government isn't listening to concerns.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Notes: Martin's waste, violence and women, NDP doom, hearts and grow ops

VICTORIA - Random notes from the front: Another way to waste your money, keeping women safe sensibly, why NDP candidates could be Gordon Campbell's secret weapon.

Remember Paul Martin's Throne Speech last January?
Of course not. No one pays attention to Throne Speeches because they're ceremonial drones that open new sessions of Parliament or provincial legislatures.
But Martin and company approached his first Throne Speech with a great deal of attention and a fine disregard for your money. Martin spent $49,000 to have the Throne Speech tested with four focus groups across the country - none in B.C. - as if it was some megabudget Hollywood blockbuster.
Martin has a coven of advisors and speechwriters. He has a whole caucus to vetr the speech. But that wasn't enough.
What did he learn? The average Canadians in the focus groups found some themes "vague and often trite." Some sections were incomprehensible. Talking about health care, child care and safe food was good; talking about immigration and First Nations treaties bad.
Research is fine. But a government that can't even manage to produce a Throne Speech without nervously spending tax dollars on focus groups is wasteful and lacking basic competence.

Much nervousness over a BC Human Rights Tribunal decision to let a Kamloops man challenge provincial policies on violence against women.
Scott Crockford was charged with assault after an altercation with his common-law spouse. He says she was bigger and stronger and the instigator. And he says Crown prosecutors were guided by discriminatory government policy.
He has a good case. B.C. has a policy designed to ensure that domestic violence is taken seriously. In the past, women have been reluctant to press charges, for a variety of reasons, and cases have often been treated as a private matter.
That allows the violence to continue, so B.C. has guidelines for prosecutors on deciding whether charges are in the public interest. (One of two criteria for deciding on whether to lay charges, along with the likelihood of conviction.)
"Given the incidence of violence against women in relationships in Canada, the prosecution of such offences is almost invariably in the public interest," the policy says. Even minor cases should result in charges.
The government now has two choices. It can fight on, spending more money and putting the policy at risk. Or it can simply change the policy to cover all domestic violence, without reference to gender. Women are the victims in 85 per cent of cases; they will still be well-served by the policy.

Carole James should be having nightmares about some of the emerging prospective NDP candidates. There are faces from the past, like Harry Lali, who complained of a media-RCMP-Liberal conspiracy against Glen Clark, Steve Orcherton, NDP leadership candidate who argued the party was too centrist, and Adrian Dix, Clark's political advisor who drafted an exculpatory memo during the casino scandal and backdated it. And faces from the public sector unions, like former BC Teachers' Federation president David Chudnovsky and former CUPE national head Judy Darcy.
Gordon Campbell must be rooting for every one of them to leap successfully into the race. They would make his campaign speeches much easier to write.

The most striking thing about Campbell's announcement of more money to reduce heart surgery wait times was how easy it would be to eliminate the problem. The government found $3 million to pay for 163 more operations. That's about about five per cent more than last year and enough to reduce the median wait for non-emergency surgery from 15 weeks to 12 weeks. (It was 13 weeks when the Liberals were elected.)
But for just $7 million more everyone waiting could have had their surgery, and the wait time knocked down to a few weeks.
Sure, there are lots of other priorities. But the solutions to some of our concerns about wait times are at hand, and within our ability to pay.

Footnote: It has become a fad for municipalities to pass tough new laws punishing landlords if tenants have a grow op. The province's support for the laws may waver now that the BC Building Corp. - a government agency - has been caught with a 500-plant grow op at a former Riverview Hospital building it manages.