Friday, November 18, 2011

After 20 years, Jumbo still in limbo

The past week in the legislature offered good reminders of how surreal things can get in the grand old building.
On Tuesday, the issue of whether the Jumbo Glacier resort near Invermere would be approved was big. Opponents, including former NHL star Scott Niedermayer, were in Victoria. The New Democrats backed them, and raised the issue in question period.
What’s surreal about that, you might ask?
Coincidentally, the next day I was clearing files off an old iMac. And I came across my last column about the controversial issue of approval for the resort. It was from October 2004.
Seven years have gone by and the governments involved haven’t been able to say yes or no to the giant project, which could include some 6,000 housing units, 23 lifts, stores, restaurants and jobs. And bring more than $500 million in economic activity.
The 2004 column noted that occasion was surreal as well. For one thing, the project had already spent 13 years in various efforts to get approvals and translate dreams into construction.
Then resource minister George Abbott had just announced that the project had passed provincial environmental assessment review. But even though the Liberals actually had a resort minister at the time, charged with promoting such developments, Abbott distanced the government from the proposal.
The real decision would be made by East Kootenay Regional District directors, he said. Look over there.
Seven years later, Lands Minister Steve Thomson has the responsibility for approving or rejecting the master development agreement for the project. He says he needs to think about the costs and benefits, First Nations opposition, community attitudes and other factors.
You can argue either way. Jumbo would be the only resort in North America where you could drive to high glacier skiing. The valley has already been logged and mined. The jobs and investment fit Premier Christy Clark’s stated agenda.
But the resort would hurt existing heli-skiing businesses. It could damage grizzly populations, which concerns First Nations and reduces ecotourism activities.
The Ktunaxa First Nation, an effective band with its own resort development and casino, opposes the project in territory it claims. An economic assessment it commissioned found the resort wouldn’t increase economic activity, as it would just take customers from other B.C. ski hills.
What’s really striking is that seven years have gone by without a decision. The issue has divided the community. The developer has kept spending money. Opponents have spent money too. Government workers have been preparing reports and memos, for which you have been paying.
And government is unable to say, this makes sense, or no, it does not.
Politically, the shadow of provincial Conservative leader John Cummins looms over the decision. If the government decides not to allow the project, Cummins will complain about the Liberals granting First Nations a veto on development.
Cummins likewise loomed over the week’s other wildly surreal moments.
On Monday, Liberal MLA Eric Foster introduced a private members bill calling on the legislature to support the federal government’s repeal of the long-gun registry.
That’s silly. It’s a federal issue; the province has no role.
But MLAs from both parties spent an hour talking about guns and crime, a remarkable waste of scarce legislature time (and the $100,000-a-year MLAs’ time). Liberal MLA Bill Bennett argued people need guns to defend themselves against the state, suggesting he’s got some concerns about just where Christy Clark is going with the government. Or something.
So why such a waste of time and money?
Because the Liberals want to line up on the side of people who think the gun registry was a terrible idea — voters who might drift to Cummins and the Conservatives.
Less time on pointless gun talk, and more on speedy project decisions would serve the public better.
Footnote: Bennett, who represents the Jumbo resort region, used a private member’s statement to blast both parties for their handling of the project approvals. “The twists and turns in government process over the last 20 years on this project are a disgrace.” he said. “All members should be embarrassed by the unjust way that this proponent has been forced to tread water for 20 years by both political parties in this House today. I ask, on behalf of my region: Please, let’s have a decision.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Keystone, Prosperity and government negotiators

There are many interesting aspects of the decision to delay the Keystone pipeline. The Times Colonist has a useful editorial here.

One striking thing is how quickly the company moved from its position that the oilsands crude pipeline had to traverse a sensitive Nebraska aquifer. The routing was necessary for the project, the developer had maintained all through the approval process, despite major protests from the people and politicians of the state, including the Republican governor.

But as soon as the U.S. government put the approval process on hold, the company changed its tune. The pipeline would be rerouted to avoid the aquifer.

It's a process that should be familiar to British Columbians. The provincial government approved plans for Taseko's Prosperity Mine, and accepted the company's claim it needed to use a large, fish-bearing lake as a tailings dump, destroying it. The Liberal government gave approval.

But the federal government said no, the environmental damage and impact on First Nations outweighed the economic benefits. It blocked the mine.

And Taseko quickly came back with a new proposal that didn't require the destruction of Fish Lake. It would spend about $300 million more and manage the tailings in a less damaging way. (I wrote more about the province's lax approach here.)

Both cases are a reminder that companies want to do things as cheaply as governments will allow (while avoiding obvious liabilities from future problems). They want the low-cost tailings dump, or the shorter pipeline route, because they can make more money, which is their duty to shareholders.

Governments need to be knowledgeable, tough bargainers to avoid unnecessary environmental damage or other decisions not in the public interest. (Yes, there is such a thing as necessary environmental damage. We aren't living in tents in the trees, after all.)

It's not at all clear that governments are tough or skilled bargainers. The B.C. government was prepared to let Taseko destroy a lake unnecessarily; it also handed huge benefits to forest companies when it released land from tree farm licences without getting compensation for taxpayers.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Report fails to clear Basi-Virk plea deal questions

UBC president Stephen Toope didn’t come up with answers about how taxpayers ended up paying $6 million to cover the legal fees of two Liberal staffers who admitted taking bribes.
That wasn’t Toope’s asssignment, he said when he delivered a report on when taxpayers should and shouldn’t pay the legal bills for government employees. The government asked him to make recommendations about the policy in the future, not report on how it worked in the past.
Toope’s report was useful. But it didn’t dispel the smell hanging over the B.C. Rail scandal and the $6 million payout that helped ensure guilty pleas from Dave Basi and Bob Virk, shutting down the B.C. Rail corruption trial well before all the evidence was heard.
The government chose to release Toope’s report while he was in India, part of Christy Clark’s Asian tour. The University of B.C. has good reasons to be building ties with China and India. But the approach did emphasize the close ties between Toope and the government, and Clark’s unavailability to deal with questions.
Toope recommended the government keep on picking up the legal fees for government workers facing job-related lawsuits or criminal charges. 
Partly, it’s a matter of fairness. If people are doing their jobs, and someone sues them or files criminal charges, they shouldn’t face crushing legal bills.
It’s also practical. If an enforcement officer fears facing a huge legal bill as a result of being sued for denying a development permit, he might just say yes to a bad project. Legal indemnification supports independent decisions in the public interest.
Toope recommended a clearer written policy, and better ways of managing costs in big ticket criminal cases. The government has effectively written a blank cheque to defence lawyers and special prosecutors. Toope said those costs could be reduced, at least on the defence side.
And he said the government should seek to recover costs if people are found guilty — something it chose not to do in the Basi-Virk case.
Toope also found there has been no real policy about covering costs in criminal cases. Public sector managers tried to push for a written policy, but the politicians never got around to making any decisions.
But the understanding, from the first case — when the government paid former Glen Clark’s legal fees in the casino licensing case — was clear. If the defendants were found not guilty, the taxpayers paid. If they broke the law, they had to pay for their own defence.
Until Basi-Virk. The government had claims on the defendants’ assets and could have collected a significant chunk of cash. But government, prosecutor and defence cut a deal. The two men pleaded guilty, and got an easy sentence of house arrest. The government — you — covered $6 million in legal fees.
The NDP raised the issue in question period this week. Attorney General Shirley Bond read from a statement in October 20101, when David Loukidelis, deputy in the Attorney General’s Ministry, and Graham Whitmarsh, finance deputy, said they made the decision because the Basi and Virk had limited ability to pay. The $6 million ensured a guilty plea; the alternative was to let the trial continue at a potentially greater cost, with no assurance of a conviction.
But it remains unclear how the two deputy ministers decided Basi and Virk couldn’t pay (the government already had $350,000 in security from Basi it could have claimed), how they had estimated trial costs and whether considered that the $6 million looked much an incentive to plead guilty, creating a perception damaging to government and the justice system.
Auditor General John Doyle is also looking at the $6 million payout.
Hopefully, he’ll come up with some better answers for the public.
In the meantime, the B.C. Rail scandal continues to hang over the government.
Footnote: The legal fee issue isn’t the only remaining question. It’s still unclear, for example, why lobbyists Brian Kieran and Erik Bornman, who both admitted paying bribes to Basi and Virk to get inside information on the deal, weren’t charged. It’s also unclear whether that was normal practice for them, or Basi and Virk. They also admitted leaking information to lobbyist Bruce Clark (Christy Clark’s brother), but it has never been explained why they did.