Friday, June 04, 2010

Conservatives chip away at offshore moratoriums

It certainly looks like the federal government is making it a lot easier for offshore oil and gas drilling and tanker traffic in B.C.'s coastal waters.
And each image of oil-soaked seabirds along the Gulf of Mexico coast is going to make that position more and more controversial.
Most people believe there is a moratorium on both tanker traffic and offshore oil and gas development off the coast.
Not just the public or environmental groups. Former federal environment minister David Anderson says the bans are in place. So does the B.C. government; in 2004 it asked the federal government to review the need for the moratoriums.
The Chr├ętien government appointed a panel. Those members all thought bans on drilling and tankers had been imposed in the 1970s and remained in place. So did the thousands of people and organizations presenting to the panel.
And at the end of the process, the panel recommended continuing the moratoriums.
But the Harper government disagrees.
Andrew Mayeda of Canwest News Service reported that the government had quietly issued a policy statement saying there is no tanker moratorium. The governments and the panel were wrong. Presto, it was gone.
Why does it matter?
Because Enbridge has a plan, now undergoing environmental assessment, to build a pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to Kitimat. There it would be pumped into tankers; about 220 a year would sail to Asia through waters that had been off limits.
And if there were a moratorium, the federal government would have to make a decision to lift it to allow the project, sparking public debate and controversy.
This way, it can just stand back and let the process unfold.
It's not a simple issue.
Tankers have a good safety record. The environmental assessment process now under way includes public input.
And it would be pretty hypocritical for most of us, who rely heavily on petroleum products in all their forms, to maintain we want oil and gas, but don't want to have anything to do with producing or transporting it.
But the offshore oil and gas industry had a pretty good safety record too. The companies and the government regulators offered assurances about safety and recovery plans and the great technical advances.
And now we're into week seven of the BP oil disaster.
The Conservative government hasn't gone quite so far on offshore oil and gas. Vancouver Island MP Gary Lunn offered assurances that the moratorium remains in place.
But not in a particularly firm way. The policy statement, Mayeda reported, also set out the new government's assessment of the offshore oil and gas moratorium.
There is no law imposing the moratorium, the government noted. The cabinet orders putting it in place have lapsed.
And so allowing drilling offshore is simply a "pure policy decision" that can be made at any time. There is no statutory impediment.
It's all remarkably loosey-goosey and fuzzy for such a huge issue.
What is clear is that the Conservative government has a different understanding of both issues than past federal governments and the public.
And its view means that tankers could sail the coastal waters and drilling rigs pop up off the coast with a much less thorough public debate than would be required before lifting a real moratorium. A cabinet order, or even bureaucratic directive, could be enough.
That won't likely be well received. There are arguments for allowing increased tanker traffic and offshore oil and gas development. Energy royalties - shared between the federal and provincial governments - could be in the billions. There are construction jobs and operating jobs and economic growth.
But what's unclear is who benefits and who bears the risks. How much risk should British Columbians accept - especially tourism operators and the fisheries sector - to allow expansion of Alberta's oilsands?
It's a debate that has become much more urgent with each day that oil has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's well.
Footnote: The B.C. government supports both the Enbridge proposal and offshore drilling, subject to appropriate environmental reviews. One problem is that the Gulf drilling program went through those same reviews. Another is that Canada has not yet shown how safety standards here differ from those in place in the U.S.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Vote for the Best party

A dandy political video. (No, not the U.S. one with the guy and his horse.)
And the party actually captured six of 15 seats on the Reykjavik city council on the weekend.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Municipal election reform ignores biggest problem

Do big campaign contributions influence politicians' decisions?
The committee that tackled municipal election reform in B.C. decided they don't.
Most British Columbians, polls suggest, disagree.
The committee - three Liberal MLAs and three Union of B.C. Municipalities representatives - delivered its recommendations this week.
There is much positive in the report, including a call for campaign spending limits and badly needed rules on third-party advertising.
But the group, chaired by Community Development Minister Bill Bennett, decided against any limits on campaign contributions. Unions, companies and individuals will still be able to donate millions of dollars to support candidates and slates. The public will still have to vote without knowing who is picking up the bills for candidates. (That is revealed months later.)
The wide-open approach undermines democracy.
Voter participation in municipal elections is dismal. Candidates struggle to be noticed. So financial backing can make a huge difference in their chances of being elected.
At a minimum, the dependence on large donors creates the risk that only candidates who can attract their support - or become part of a slate that can - have a serious chance of electoral success. That limits the ability of ordinary citizens to offer their ideas and energy in a fair election campaign.
And it creates the clear perception that candidates are indebted to their financial backers. If electoral success relies on donations from the union representing municipal workers or a major developer, then those organizations effectively become gatekeepers to the political process. Politicians who displease them face the risk of having their funding vanish the next time around.
The committee decided the donations were not a problem. People and organizations have a right to spend money to influence the outcome of elections, it judged. And donations allow those affected by municipal government, but ineligible to vote - a corporation from any other province or country, for example - to participate in the democratic process.
Disclosure of donations within a few months of the election allow the public to be alert to any favoritism, the committee said. It called for an online municipal donation reporting site to make that easier, a welcome innovation. (The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, while opposing donation limits, proposed requiring all contributions to be disclosed publicly five days before the vote.)
Most provinces disagree with B.C.'s approach. Only two others allow unlimited donations; the others either have limits or allow municipalities to impose them.
The public disagrees too. A Mustel poll earlier this year found three-quarters of British Columbians favoured contribution limits and two-thirds wanted a ban on union and corporate donations.
And the committee received 134 submissions calling for limits on contributions, compared with 31 that wanted to maintain the status quo.
But the issue of political contributions goes beyond municipal elections.
There are no contribution limits in provincial elections. The Greens and New Democrats both support donation limits; the Liberals prefer to allow individuals, corporations and unions to give as much as they choose.
If the committee had decided some rules were needed in municipal campaigns - as the public believes - it would have been hard for the Liberals to keep arguing that provincial campaigns should remain a financing free-for-all.
Most of the changes recommended are positive. Spending limits - if they are set low enough - would reduce the influence of big donors and encourage grassroots campaigns. The committee has called for more effective disclosure of donations in an easily accessible way. Enforcement provisions would be strengthened.
And municipal election terms would change to four years from three. The reduced accountability would, it's hoped, by increased effectiveness as councillors had longer to learn their jobs and address issues before the next election loomed.
All useful changes. But sadly, the failure to move on contribution limits leaves the most significant problem untouched.
Footnote: The government decided against having independent MLA Vicki Huntington or any New Democrats on the committee. And Surrey Coun. Barbara Steele, one of the UBCM reps, is a former Liberal candidate.

Sunday, May 30, 2010