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British Columbia Western Canada: Sunshine with a tinge of worry as the federal Liberals declare a climate emergency and B.C. heats up

Good morning. Wendy Cox here in Vancouver, where the endless days of sunshine are now tinged with a bit of worry.

This week, the federal Liberals declared a climate emergency. The timing was deliberate: It came less than 24 hours before the government reapproved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

B.C. Premier John Horgan responded to the pipeline approval in part by saying his province would consider joining any new lawsuit launched by provincial Indigenous groups if he felt going to court once again was in the best interest of British Columbia.

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But Mr. Horgan declined to declare a similar climate emergency in B.C., even though the provincial Green Party – whose support Mr. Horgan relies on to maintain his minority government – called for such a designation last fall. Instead, Mr. Horgan told a news conference this week that “the best course of action for government is to not declare there’s a problem, but to take steps to resolve the problem.”

The controversy is going on amid a parching drought in British Columbia and other parts of Western Canada, a weather pattern which doesn’t bode well for the upcoming forest fire season. Legislature correspondent Justine Hunter spent some time this week on the Chemainus River, just a short drive from Victoria, where researcher Matt MacDonald waded through water approaching his knees. Two weeks ago, it was up to his waist.

The drought rating for Vancouver Island area is extremely dry, but everywhere is dry. The normal rains of spring didn’t materialize and the provincial government issued a drought alert June 7. Several important salmon streams on the island are reaching the near critical thresholds for ecosystems and fish. The government has said if voluntary efforts to reduce water consumption by residents (shorter showers, please), farms and industry aren’t successful, it may consider regulating water use.

Jonathan Boyd, a hydrologist with the B.C. River Forecast Centre, said the drought concerns in B.C. are due to a confluence of events: Since mid-January, B.C. has experienced a lower-than normal snowpack, unusually warm spring temperatures, precious little rain, and record-breaking heat.

“It’s been one of the fastest melts of the snowpack we have seen, so it puts us in a vulnerable situation for drought,” he said. “It’s earlier than we have ever seen it, and It’s moving into a dire situation.”

The heightened worries have prompted municipalities in the Greater Vancouver area to issue a warning this week, advising those with breathing problems to brace for a smoky summer. Francis Ries, senior project engineer with Metro Vancouver, said it’s a question of when, not if, the smoke will arrive and pregnant women or anyone with a heart or breathing condition should start working out strategies now to manage their response to the smudgey air.

Although the number of hectares actually burned so far this year is well below average, the most intense fire period is from late July to late August.

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Across the West, drought conditions are especially acute in Saskatchewan, where the Agricultural Producers Association is calling for help from the provincial and federal governments. For many producers, the groups says, this is the third straight year of below-average moisture.

Late last month, Environment Canada predicted a long, hot summer to come across the West.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

Around the West

Trans Mountain: The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has been approved for the second time, but there is still a lot we don’t know about what happens next. The Crown corporation that owns the pipeline says construction should resume by September, assuming it gets all the permits it needs quickly, with oil running through the expanded pipe by 2022. At the same time, Trans Mountain CEO Ian Anderson says the delays caused by a court decision last year have meant the final price tag — until now $7.4-billion — will increase, though he’s not saying by how much. And anti-pipeline Indigenous groups and environmentalists are already strategizing about how to disrupt the expansion project.

The federal Liberals continue to face pushback for the decision — both from opponents of the project who say it will make Canada’s climate obligations impossible to meet, and from suppoerrts like Alberta’s premier who say progress it not happening fast enough. The controversy wasn’t enough to stop environmentalist Steven Guilbeault from announcing plans to run for the Liberals in the October election. Mr. Guilbeault began his entrance into federal politics by making it clear he continues to oppose the Trans Mountain project.

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Children in care: B.C.'s Auditor-General has found poor oversight and other problems plague the care provided by contracted residential agencies that housed more than 1,000 children in government care in the province last year. The report identified a lack of oversight of contracts with service providers and a system in which social workers struggled to find placements that would match the needs of children.

Caribou: The B.C. government has put a moratorium on resource development in areas where the southern mountain caribou are struggling for survival. The moratorium, which will stop any new mining, forestry and oil and gas activity in about 734,000 hectares of the province’s Peace region, officially lasts until June, 2021, though the government says it hopes it can have a resolution by the end of this year.

Environmental laws: In the background of the Trans Mountain debate has been increasing opposition to Bills C-69 and C-48, which would overhaul environmental approvals and ban tanker traffic off B.C.'s northern coast, respectively. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has emerged as a vocal critic of both pieces of legislation, which he says unfairly target his province’s oil industry. Now that the bills have passed, Mr. Kenney says he’ll follow through a promise to challenge them in court. Mr. Kenney’s government also filed its long-awaited legal challenge of the federal carbon tax.

Missing and Murdered Woman inquiry: The Saskatchewan government says it will continue to track or seize at-risk babies, despite a call to stop from the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Manitoba election: Voters in Manitoba will be heading to the polls a year earlier than expected, after Premier Brian Pallister moved the date of the election forward to September 10 instead of October of next year. The campaign hasn’t started, however; under provincial law, that can’t happen until mid-August.

Cider: The Prairies might not be known for apples, but that hasn’t stopped several new businesses in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba from jumping on the craft cider train. Our Alberta food writer, Dan Clapson, looks at what new, fruity creations are on tap.

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Opinion

Konrad Yakabuski on Trudeau’s pipeline problem: “The Prime Minister has so tried to play both sides of the Trans Mountain issue that neither proponents nor opponents of TMX believe him any more. Those who favour the project doubt this Prime Minister will ever let TMX be built; the project’s opponents don’t think he’s serious about meeting Canada’s Paris accord targets. What’s clear is that Canada cannot at once be in “a national climate emergency” and approve a project that, whether Mr. Trudeau admits it or not, is aimed at boosting oil production in Alberta.”

The Globe and Mail Editorial Board on the Trans Mountain decision: “The Trans Mountain expansion is in the national interest. It will boost the economy, create jobs, reduce the likelihood of railcar crude spills and, if Mr. Trudeau keeps a promise he made Tuesday, eventually fund the development of clean, renewable energy sources.”

Ed Whittingham on balancing energy and the environment: “Energy evolution is hard for any company, province or entire country. To be clear, a pipeline is no panacea for all that ails Alberta’s oil and gas industry. But it will definitely strengthen balance sheets, and financial health is needed for Alberta to evolve.”

Thomas Gunton on pipeline politics: “While governments should be applauded for seeking consensus in an increasingly polarized world, the Prime Minister’s efforts seem to have failed, as pro-environment stakeholders attack the Liberals for contributing to climate change and risking B.C.’s coast, while pro-development forces attack the government’s carbon tax despite its approval of TMX.”

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