The village of Granisle, in B.C.'s northern interior, was once a bustling mining community of 3,000. Twenty years after the last mine closed, just a few hundred residents remain. A proposal to open a copper, gold and molybdenum mine on the shores of nearby Morrison Lake could see the town boom again.
Based on the first 31 pages of a 33-page report on the B.C. environmental assessment process, the prospects looked pretty good for Granisle. The mine proponent had satisfied concerns about fish habitat, water quality and first nations consultation.
But the final two pages of the report take an abrupt turn: The risks outweigh the benefits, it concludes. So on Oct. 1, Environment Minister Terry Lake – incurring the ire of the mining industry – axed the proposal, saying he has a lack of confidence in Pacific Booker Minerals Inc. to deliver on environmental safety.
This week the company fired back, saying the Clark government needs to explain how it defines "unacceptable risk." Without clear rules, the company warned, the Premier's stated objective of creating new mining jobs will fail.
At the BC Liberal convention last weekend, Premier Christy Clark assured delegates: "Your government is pro-resource development." But it is not clear that is the message she wants to deliver to mainstream voters.
That is where her environment minister comes in. In an interview this week, Mr. Lake said he wants to codify a new method for evaluating resource development, to clearly measure risks against benefits. It is a new approach – similar to the one that the province took on the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal in July. As we get closer to the election in May, 2013, Mr. Lake seems to be raising the green standard.
"If you can't lower the risks to an acceptable level, it doesn't matter what the benefits are," Mr. Lake said in a recent interview, referring to the Enbridge pipeline project. "It's kind of like this [Morrison Lake] mine: Sure, it represented a tremendous economic opportunity, but the risks couldn't be reduced to the level that people felt comfortable with."
The BC Liberals discovered in the 2009 election that they could win green votes – and the opposition New Democratic Party could lose them – when prominent environmentalists denounced the NDP for its attacks on the carbon tax.
But Ms. Clark did little to keep those eco-voters happy. She sat on the fence, initially, on the Enbridge pipeline plan. She challenged Ottawa over its refusal to approve a different mine, known as Prosperity, over environmental concerns. "I think the Prosperity Mine needs to move ahead, not just for the thousands of jobs that would be created over the years in the Williams Lake area, but as a signal to investors across the world that British Columbia is open for investment," she said at the time.
More recently, however, Ms. Clark appears to have given Mr. Lake latitude to green up. "I've challenged the process to try to make it more transparent, to have more analysis," Mr. Lake explained. That would give more emphasis to risk in the environmental review process.
His Morrison Mine decision was announced the same day Ms. Clark was in Calgary for her showdown with Alberta Premier Alison Redford over Northern Gateway. At a time when the Premier wanted to tell the world that her province is serious about putting environmental concerns ahead of the almighty dollar, here was a concrete example.
John Horgan, an NDP MLA who attended the Liberal convention as an observer, said it is the Liberals who are creating uncertainty for investors.
"I heard the Premier say the NDP was bad for investment at her convention, but her government turned down the Morrison mine, her government said even if approvals were given to the Enbridge pipeline, she would harass them through permits and potentially turn off the power," he said.
For a government that is pro-resource development, Ms. Clark has a funny way of telling investors that B.C. is open for business.