As B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett heads to Ottawa this week to make an impassioned pitch for the proposed New Prosperity copper-gold mine near Williams Lake, he is facing questions about his government's rejection of another, smaller open-pit project in a different part of the province.
Those questions – which have percolated for months – jumped to the fore Monday, when a B.C. Supreme Court justice overturned B.C.'s rejection of the Morrison Lake mine near Smithers because it "failed to comport with the requirements of procedural fairness" and ordered B.C. to reconsider the project.
As set out in the court ruling, B.C.'s environment and mines ministers refused to issue a certificate for the Morrison Lake mine even though a government report had concluded it would not result in any significant adverse effects as long as mitigation measures were followed. Despite those findings, the executive director of B.C.'s environmental assessment office told the ministers to reject the project.
The province rejected the mine in September, 2012. The company sued, a court hearing was held this past August and the decision released Monday.
Asked about the ruling Tuesday, Mr. Bennett said the government had not yet decided its next step.
"We honestly do not know what we are going to do with the decision," Mr. Bennett said Tuesday, after a speech in support of the New Prosperity project that was hosted by the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.
"It's too recent. We're going to have to take a look at the decision … and go from there."
Premier Christy Clark's Liberal government, which has made new mines a keystone of its jobs plan, is now facing questions about the consistency and transparency of its approach.
Ms. Clark says her government is addressing those concerns.
"I did ask [Environment Minister] Mary Polak in her mandate letter to make sure the process was fair for environmental assessment so I do think we need more clarity around that, we need to make sure it's absolutely fair," Ms. Clark said on Monday in Victoria.
"So she has already been working on that regardless of the [Morrison Lake] decision.
"I've set very ambitious goals for new mines," she added. "We are not looking for reasons not to build new mines. But we do want to make sure the ones that happen, happen in an environmentally sound way. People voted for economic development in the election, there is no doubt about it, but they didn't vote for economic development at any cost."
As part of the B.C. Jobs Plan, Ms. Clark in 2011 said the province was committed to eight new mines by 2015.
Since then, two mines – New Afton, a copper-gold mine near Kamloops built on the site of a former mine, and Mount Milligan, a copper-gold mine about 150 kilometres northwest of Prince George – have opened. Another five are permitted or under construction.
On Tuesday, politicians from interior B.C., mining and business advocates and Ervin Charleyboy, a former chief of the Alexis Creek Indian Band, spoke in support of New Prosperity, a proposed $1-billion copper-gold mine backed by Vancouver-based Taseko Mines.
Two federal review panels have found the mine would result in significant adverse environmental effects. Taseko maintains the most recent panel's conclusions are flawed.
"I'm hopeful we can resolve this without getting into a debate about the [federal review] panel process," Mr. Bennett said of his pending trip to the nation's capital. "What I want to do is provide information. I want to make sure the federal government understands that we do this in British Columbia – there are open-pit copper-gold mines scattered through the province that capture tailings in water, they have tailings ponds, and the water does not leach into adjoining watercourses.
"That happens every day in this province. We have the technology, the engineering expertise to see this done. That's what I am going to focus on. … I want them to say yes, because they can say yes."
Mr. Bennett said he had not sought a meeting with federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq as she is the statutory decision maker on the New Prosperity proposal and a meeting would have "put her in an awkward position."