Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Inside the decision to kick miners out of the Flathead

One of the big throne speech surprises was the promise to ban mining and oil and gas development from the Flathead Valley in the East Kootenay.

The valley is north of the Montana border, beside a U.S. national park. It's the headwaters for the Flathead River, a big deal in Montana. For decades, there has been cross-border wrangling. B.C. wanted the area open for resource activities. Montana wanted it protected.

Now Montana has won.

There are several interesting aspects to this.

First, the decision undermines critics who say the Liberal government is pro-industry. The Mining Association of B.C. called the ban "dismaying," claiming it was unfair political interference. The environmental assessment process should determine whether companies could go ahead with coal, gold and coalbed methane projects, it said, adding that the decision will cost jobs and tax revenue.

Second, it offered a glimpse at how decisions are made. Environmental groups in Montana have been active in calling for a ban. And there has been some high-profile political pressure. U.S. Sen. Max "Blame Canada" Baucus went to a meeting in Fernie in 2005 to oppose coal-mining plans and got a hostile reception from Liberal MLA Bill Bennett.

You can get the tone from Bennett's subsequent legislature speech when he wondered what "unscrupulous, traitorous twit" invited Baucus, who was a big antagonist in the softwood lumber dispute.

But at the same time, Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer was meeting quietly with Premier Gordon Campbell over five years. They came to trust each other, Schweitzer said. They worked hard to keep the talks secret and out of the news. "We were quietly, methodically always moving forward," he told the Flathead Beacon.

Campbell deserves the credit, he said. He kept coming back to the table, even when times got tough.

Third, the politicians' response to the ban highlights interesting differences between the U.S. and Canada.

After the throne speech announcement, Sean Holman of publiceyeonline.com asked Mining Minister Blair Lekstrom if the companies who have leases and had spent money on development would be compensated. At least four companies have provincial permits, leases or claims.

"I'm not at a point where I can speculate," Lekstrom replied.

Which is interesting, Holman noted, as Schweitzer readily confirmed that companies affected by the ban - and similar measures on the U.S. side - would get government compensation.

So did Lekstrom not know about the arrangement? Did the government decide on the ban without knowing if compensation would be paid? Is Campbell the only one who can speak for the government?

Or are they just more open and transparent down there in Montana?

Last week, Campbell said there would be some "minimal" compensation costs.

That too is interesting. Schweitzer seemed to think the costs would be more significant and plans to press the U.S. federal government to contribute to the compensation B.C. has to pay. "The costs are greater on the Canadian side," he said.

Bennett acknowledged some compensation would be paid.

But the companies should have known they were wasting time and money, he said. "So come on, let's be honest about this," he told the Cranbrook Daily Townsman. "There was never going to be a mine in the Flathead Valley and I think people with claims there know it."

But - while stating he didn't think coal mining was a good idea - Bennett had always said the companies' plans would go through the normal approval process.

The government "wouldn't make a simple, unilateral political decisions to just scrap the due process, and to heck with the proponents rights and to heck with the reputation of B.C. to investors from around the world."

Pragmatically the decision makes sense - the opposition to mining in the valley, from both sides of the border, was intense.

And with this action, the government heads off, at least for a while, calls for the Flathead to be included in a park, which would prevent logging, hunting and other activities.

Footnote: Among the companies seeking compensation, reports Gerry Warner of the Daily Townsman, is Teck Corp. The corporation is a major donor to the Liberal party, contributing about $500,000 since 2005. It has eight coal licences in the Flathead and renewed them as recently as 2008.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Wilcocks you are not correct in stating that a park would necessarily ban hunting. Most large provincial Parks in BC are in fact open to hunting. In BC Parks the hunting issue is addressed in the Master Plan process which is created based on public input.

Kim said...

It's great news for the people in the area, too bad for Fish Lake and it's aboriginal residents. Too bad for the people up north who get to have pipelines running through the back yard and tanker traffic offshore!

Too bad for all of us, the way politics are played at in this province. Thanks for a thought provoking piece Paul:)

RossK said...


Point taken.

To take things a wee bit further...Do you have reason to believe that a large park for the area is, in fact, still on the table?



Am I correct in reading between your lines that you almost/kinda/sorta have come to the conclusion that this might be one case where a Premier who is a devout unilateralist may have actually been, on balance, a plus?