When British Columbia weighs the environmental impacts of the proposed Woodfibre LNG Ltd. facility near Squamish, it won't consider the project in isolation.
Instead, the government will weigh how the plant could interact with other projects in Howe Sound, ranging from new subdivisions to a sightseeing gondola that opened last year.
That approach reflects a new Cumulative Effects Framework being rolled out across the province that is designed to weigh the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project in relation to its surroundings. The province will use this approach in its environmental assessments.
The fledgling framework is an improvement over the existing system, but lacks clout, says environmental lawyer Jessica Clogg.
"There are a few places where more attention is being given [to cumulative effects]," Ms. Clogg, executive director of West Coast Environmental Law, said on Thursday. "But over all, there is no legal teeth, there is no legal obligation to look at cumulative effects … there's no legal obligation to take the findings into account even if someone looks at the cumulative effects.
"So there are enormous legal barriers."
B.C. Auditor-General Carol Bellringer raised similar concerns in a recent report, in which she found the provincial government has not given its Natural Resource Ministry clear direction or the necessary powers to manage the cumulative effects of natural-resource use.
The government says it is already acting on all nine recommendations from the Auditor-General's report. It also says the new framework builds on existing land-use plans and regulations.
B.C. started developing its Cumulative Effects Framework in 2010. The system is being applied in Howe Sound as well in the Northeast, Thompson-Okanagan and Cariboo regions. Plans call for it to be fully implemented by 2021. Alberta is working on a similar approach.
That lengthy time frame in B.C., Ms. Bellringer said, means in the interim, "decisions about natural resource development will continue to be made without fully understanding the implications for values that are important for the province's well-being."
Developers have currently proposed 160 major natural-resource development projects in the province, each valued at a minimum of $15-million, Ms. Bellringer's report said. Of those, 24 per cent are in the northwestern part of the province.
"The interesting thing in the new framework is this notion that we need to be periodically looking at a regional scale – and looking at a scale that matters for the values in question," Ms. Clogg said. "Right now, that's not happening."
Under the current environmental assessment system, the government has discretionary ability to consider cumulative impacts, Ms. Clogg said.
But many projects are not big enough or in a category that would trigger an environmental assessment.
Some have decided to pursue the issue in court.
In March, Chief Marvin Yahey and the Blueberry River First Nations sued the provincial government for allegedly breaching a treaty agreement with industrial developments, including oil and gas wells, pipelines, logging cutblocks and roads.
In an interview in March, Mr. Yahey told The Globe and Mail that resource development over the past three decades had fractured the landscape, making it more difficult to trap and hunt and putting animals, including moose, at risk.
In a response filed with the court, the province denied those allegations, citing reasons that included temporary or minor impacts of industrial development on the land in question.
"Natural systems are inherently resilient and significant development and change can occur without impairing the fundamental integrity of the underlying system," says the response, which was filed last month in the Supreme Court of B.C.
"Despite the industrial development in the Claimed Territory, there remains ample and abundant wildlife, including fur-bearing animals, fish and other resources."
The case is continuing.