Will BC’s cabinet shuffle unleash Mr. Hyde on the environment?

Most governments have at least two distinct personalities when it comes to environmental protection.  In the spirit of Hallowe’en this Sunday, let’s call them Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Dr. Jekyll recognizes the need to protect our environment, while building a sustainable economy, even if that means saying “no” sometimes to economically lucrative industrial operations.  Dr. Hyde is the part of government that starts salivating at the thought of all the lovely tax dollars and short-term economic growth flowing in.  At different points in time one or the other personality may appear more dominant. 

250px-Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster.pngThis morning (October 25th)  Premier Campbell restructured his cabinet.  One of the most significant features of the new Cabinet is the creation of a new Ministry, the Ministry of Natural Resource Operations (MNRO), to be headed by Minister Steve Thomson.  This new Ministry is given responsibility for a wide range of natural resource approvals, including (see the government release for the full list) approvals related to:

  • Crown land allocation and authorizations;
  • Forests and range authorizations
  • Independent power production
  • Mines and minerals titles, permitting and inspections;
  • Water use planning and authorizations
  • Fish, wildlife and habitat management
  • Pests, disease, invasive plants and species
  • Archaeology and Heritage Conservation Act permitting

Essentially this new Ministry is a “one stop shop” that industry can come to for most, if not all, approvals it might need from the BC government.  This is being done to facilitate industry access to government approvals.  

The MNRO has all the powers that the government’s Mr. Hyde persona would love to have, without much in the way of the responsibility to plan for environmental protection. 

And the question is: how will the Ministries responsible for the Dr. Jekyll persona – that is for environmental planning and protecting crown land, forests, fish, the environment and heritage conservation – be able to exercise control over the Mr. Hyde persona? How will the left hand talk to the right hand?

A Blogger, BC Iconoclast, has already posted his thoughts on the new Ministry, and he seems to miss this fundamental point, writing:

What we have is a ministry that will be taking on a lot of planning roles from a host of different ministries. 

With respect to BC Iconoclast, there is nothing in the reshuffle to indicate that the new Ministry is responsible for planning akin to the former Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management (it’s named the Ministry of Natural Resource Operations, not Management).

If we need to look to an historic example of this type of one-window approach to approvals, the example would be Land and Water BC – a Crown Corporation which, in the early 2000s, aggressively authorized commercial use of public lands, sold public properties and issued water permits with little public accountability in a misguided effort to promote economic development – a clear illustration of what happens when the Mr. Hyde personality is allowed to run things.  Land and Water BC was eventually dropped, in part due to public protest about the controversial liquidation of public lands. 

The Ministry of Natural Resource Operations is also responsible for the Oil and Gas Commission, another entity intended to provide a one-window approach to environmental approvals.  West Coast has written recently on that agency’s apparent inability to properly regulate water use by the Oil and Gas industry

If the new MNRO wants to have environmental credentials, it will need to demonstrate in short order that it is not just an approval-granting machine, a personification of Mr. Hyde, but that it accepts its marching orders from the Ministries that have a more Dr. Jekyll-like mandate, and that environmental concerns are appropriately and responsibly addressed in its deliberations. [Update - 26 October 2010 - More details about the shuffle are emerging]

What does it mean for the budget?

If the separation of environmental power from environmental responsibility is not alarming enough, it’s worth considering what this means for funding for environmental policy-making and planning in next year’s budget. 

Until now when a government cut funding to the Ministries of Environment, Forests or Tourism, industry also suffered – through longer wait-times to get approvals for water use, logging or interference with heritage sites.  This created an incentive, even from a Mr. Hyde point of view, to ensure at least a minimum level of funding to these Ministries. 

That incentive is now gone, since these approvals will now be routed through the Ministry of Natural Resource Operations, which, one presumes, will be well funded. 

Happy Hallowe’en!

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer

P.S. As an aside, we were surprised to note that the Ministry of Natural Resource Operations is responsible for “Aquaculture licensing and regulation.”  For the most part this industry is now federally regulated as a result of Alexandra Morton’s court case on the subject, and the provincial government has indicated that it accepts that ruling. 

[Update 26 Oct 2010: Related post: "Natural Resource Operations" is about "One Process"]