With a federal cabinet decision on the fate of the Prosperity mine expected any day, B.C. Mining Minister Bill Bennett is warning that rejection would deal a massive blow to the province's economy.
Ottawa's verdict is the last major hurdle to be cleared by Taseko Mines Ltd. after 15 years of pursuing what is believed to be one of the largest undeveloped copper-gold deposits in Canada.
"If the decision goes the wrong way in this case, it throws a wet blanket over the industry," Mr. Bennett said in an interview on Sunday. "We know how fickle mining capital can be."
The Harper government would normally be sympathetic to a project of this nature but its own environmental review process last July found the project would significantly harm fish and grizzly bear habitats, while undermining traditional aboriginal use of lands and resources. The federal cabinet has never before overruled such a clear-cut environmental finding.
Mr. Bennett said the objections of first nations and environmentalists cannot outweigh the economic benefits to the struggling central B.C. region - communities where voters tend to favour Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives at election time.
The provincial government has been waging a campaign against the federal environmental review process over the past year, complaining that the federal process is holding up economic development. In this case, the province has already finished its own review and given the project a green light.
"I don't understand the delay, I really don't," Mr. Bennett said. "Is it because they are worried about what people in Toronto will think?"
The project, 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, would drain Fish Lake - referred to as Teztan Biny by the Xeni Gwet'in people, who say they have been fishing there for generations. Their Tsilhqot'in National Government has mustered national opposition to the project.
Carole James, Leader of the B.C. New Democratic Party opposition, said Ottawa will trigger confrontation if it approves Prosperity.
"I'm very concerned if the federal government goes ahead with approval of this project it will cause further divide in that community."
She is proposing a new provincial process - a mining commission - to ensure that companies don't waste their time with projects where there is no community consensus. The commission would hear from first nations, industry and communities and "look at where it makes sense to build these projects, and then expedite them, get moving on them."
And she said a commission would have given Taseko certainty - because its proposal would have been rejected years ago.
"This project wouldn't have been approved, from my perspective, because of the environment concerns, because of the first nations concerns, because these issues couldn't be mitigated, because there has been nothing but confrontation through this process."
Mr. Bennett scoffed at the idea of a different approval process.
"It's naive to the point of absurdity for the NDP to indicate that government can somehow manipulate where mining investment will go," he said. The fact that Fish Lake is in the way of a significant gold deposit is an unfortunate reality, he said, recalling the old miner's adage: "A mine is where you find it."