Saturday, May 15, 2010

Province's role in capital marina dispute

A proposal for a marina in the Inner Harbour across from the legislature has created a great divide in the community. The marina is to target really large yachts. Opponents fear a wall of big boats blocking the water and problems for kayakers and other waterfront users.
The Times Colonist has a useful editorial here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gulf oil spill burying B.C. offshore dreams

All that oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico and washing up on U.S. shorelines is going to have an impact in B.C.
The provincial government's eagerness to see oil and gas drilling off the B.C. coast has faded in the recent years. Since Richard Neufeld left the cabinet for the Senate in 2008, there has been less talk about the potential offshore.
But the government is still working away - and spending money - on clearing the path for development of what could be huge oil and gas resources.
It's gone more slowly than the Liberals expected. The Campbell government's throne speech in 2003 predicted that drilling would be under way by now.
"By 2010, your government wants to have an offshore oil and gas industry that is up and running, environmentally sound and booming with job creation," the government boldly forecast then. The promise was always that drilling would only be allowed if it could be done safely.
A government task force had reported in 2002 that "there is no inherent or fundamental inadequacy of the science or technology, properly applied in an appropriate regulatory framework, to justify a blanket moratorium."
And even in their second term, the Liberals were pressing ahead with efforts to launch the industry.
But there were several problems. The federal government wasn't keen on the political cost of allowing drilling. Neufeld noted in 2006 that a minority federal government wouldn't likely tackle the issue.
Energy companies didn't put B.C. offshore development high on their priority lists.
And the opposition within the province is strong - including some First Nations in a position to block drilling.
That opposition has grown as each day passes with more oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.
The petroleum industry has touted its safety record. With modern drilling techniques, nothing major could go wrong, it maintained. Any small leaks or spills could be quickly contained.
But those "trust us" claims are in tatters.
The Deepwater Horizon was a new drilling rig. U.S. regulations are similar to Canada's. The well owner was BP, a giant energy company (which also hopes to drill offshore in Canada's north, where it has leases).
The contractor was Transocean, another giant with operations around the world - including on Canada’s east coast. And some work was done by Halliburton, another global giant.
Yet the well blew out; the rig exploded; 11 people died; and oil has been pouring into the ocean since April 20.
In more than three weeks, no company or government agency has found a way to stop the oil, which is flowing into the ocean at 33,000 litres per hour.
In their first public explanations, at a U.S. congressional committee, executives from the three companies could offer no explanation. BP said Transocean was responsible for rig operation. Transocean pointed to possible problems with Halliburton's work on a concrete casing. Not our responsibility, said Halliburton.
The potential reserves off B.C.'s coast are understandably attractive to government. There could be almost 10 billion barrels of oil and more than 40 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's about $170 billion worth of gas alone. The government could take in something like $35 billion, according to the Liberals.
But after the Gulf disaster, the oil and gas are going to be staying there for a long time.
The spill isn't just a problem for offshore drilling proponents.
The images of oil slicks and fouled birds are profoundly unhelpful for Enbridge's plans to build a pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to Kitimat. That project alone would face many challenges.
But the project would see the oil transported to markets in tankers cruising through B.C. coastal waters to export markets.
No worries, the proponents maintain. Today's tankers are capable of operating with no risk to the environment. Technology and other advances mean nothing could go wrong.
Which sounds awfully similar to the claims of the offshore oil industry before the gulf disaster.
Footnote: Earlier this month, Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom said the spill hasn't changed the government's position on the offshore. "If it can be done properly, I think people will entertain it; if it can't, then it wouldn't be," he told reporters.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Children lose as government fights to keep secrets

Something has gone badly wrong when the person charged with looking after the interests of vulnerable children in B.C. ends up suing the government to get information.
And it's even worse when the government introduces legislation to allow it to keep secrets from the Representative for Children and Youth - and makes it retroactive to 2007.
The Liberals eliminated the independent agency monitoring the Children and Families Ministry and providing support for families and children in the government care after the 2001 election. It was dumb decision.
A damning report by Ted Hughes in 2006 revealed mismanagement and underfunding that hurt vulnerable children and families. The Hughes' recommendations included restoration of independent oversight, åsomething that the Campbell government had repeatedly insisted was unnecessary.
The representative's office was created as a result. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond - aboriginal, a Saskatchewan provincial court judge with an excellent academic background and an interest in child and youth issues - was hired by a committee of MLAs.
After a year on the job, Turpel-Lafond reported little progress had been made on the Hughes' recommendations. And she noted she had hoped for a co-operative report with the ministry, but was rebuffed.
That was a warning sign, it turned out. The ministry, it appeared, was not providing the co-operation you would expect if it accepted the idea of oversight and public accountability. It refused to provide briefings, tried to go around the representative and wouldn't respond to report recommendations. (Although other ministries, like health, did.)
From the outside, it was tough to judge all this. The ministry maintained it was co-operating, but the information requests were overwhelming and the representative's office was over-stepping its role.
But the latest developments suggest the government is trying to undermine the representative's oversight.
Turpel-Lafond has been working on a report on changes to the ministry's children in the care of a relative program. It provides support for relatives - most often grandparents - who care for children when parents can't. It's a useful alternative to foster care. At any given time, some 4,500 children are in the program. (About 9,000 are in other government care.)
The program wasn't even under the children's ministry until 2007. It was part of income assistance.
Turpel-Lafond wanted to review how the program is working after the changes.
That's important. There is no guarantee relatives will be able to cope with looking after these children. They might need financial support or help with the challenges. Not all homes would be suitable. Eligibility rules might exclude some families
And thousands of children's lives are affected by how well the program works.
Turpel-Lafond went looking for information. She asked for the reports that had gone to cabinet on the changes, believing those would be helpful.
The government stalled. It announced a replacement program - a new Extended Family Program - in February, with no details.
It said the representative could have the information, with conditions. The facts couldn't be revealed publicly. And the government would have a veto over any use of the information.
That's the law, said the premier's office.
But that's not the law the legislature passed in setting up the representative's office. It gives Turpel-Lafond the right to any documents, except those covered by lawyer-client privilege.
The Liberal government argues a different legal interpretation.
But the fact that it's also proposing to rewrite the law, changing the rules retroactively to dodge the representative's information request, indicates the government knows the representative has a legal right to the information, Otherwise, why change the legislation?
Turpel-Lafond talked about her role with the Calgary Herald last week. She explored the issue of independence.
"I'd be happy to work with a minister, but I'm not willing to have a minister say to me: 'Mary Ellen, you're not publishing that report.' Or: 'I'll release that report when I feel like it.'"
The Liberals promised, after the Hughes report, independent oversight. It does not like they meant it.
Footnote: Mary Polak, the minister, describes the legal case as a waste of scarce resources. But she supports both the amendments to the legislation and the court battle to maintain secrecy. The legislative committee on children and youth, created along with the representatives' office, hasn't met since March 3.