Marilyn Baptiste, chief of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation, has seen up close the difference between federal and provincial environmental assessments.
In 2010, the province approved Taseko Corp.'s Prosperity mine, saying serious damage to nearby Fish Lake could be mitigated and that the social and economic benefits would outweigh the environmental impact.
But the federal government blocked the project after a review panel determined the mine would cause irreparable harm that could not be justified.
Now, Ms. Baptiste – who has fished for salmon in the cold waters of the Nemiah Valley – fears the Harper government is prepared to hand over to the B.C. government the sole responsibility for assessing Taseko's new mine plan, which was tabled last November.
And that, in future, the provincial, rather than federal, government will review proposed resource projects.
While Ottawa is being widely accused of gutting the environmental review process, Ms. Baptiste has less confidence in the B.C. government, which, she says, has an abysmal record in taking into account the concerns of native communities like hers.
British Columbia may have more at stake than any other province in legislation introduced in Ottawa on Thursday to overhaul the way the federal government assesses major energy and mining projects.
On the one hand, the Harper government will devolve to the provinces responsibility over projects like the mines and natural gas processing plants that are planned for B.C.
On the other, Ottawa has signalled it will hold the reins more tightly in the contentious battle over pipelines, reserving the right to approve projects related to the oil sands, like the Northern Gateway or Kinder Morgan's TransMountain expansion, regardless of what a review panel might say about the environmental impact.
The province's Environment Minister, Terry Lake, has endorsed the federal initiative. In fact, British Columbia has been leading the charge among provinces by urging Ottawa to adopt a "one project, one review" approach.
Native leaders in B.C. worry the drive to exploit Canada's vast resources – and open up new export markets to Asia – will create a momentum that will overwhelm their demands for full partnership in development.
Ms. Baptiste is focused on the federal plan to give responsibility to the province for many environmental assessments, which could include the new Prosperity mine now under review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
"We would not accept B.C. jurisdiction because B.C has never once denied a project," she said. "It's a rubber-stamp process and everybody knows it."
Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada, said there should be little difference in outcomes between provincial and federal reviews. He noted that B.C. approved the Prosperity mine with more than 100 conditions for reducing the environmental impact.
Mr. Gratton noted that Ottawa will not hand over jurisdiction unless it is satisfied the province has review processes that are as robust as its own.
While Ms. Baptiste worries about the federal government offloading to the province, economist Robyn Allan is urging the B.C. government to reclaim authority over the Northern Gateway review, which it ceded in a 2010 agreement.
Ms. Allan – a former chief executive of the Insurance Corporation of B.C. – wrote an open letter to Premier Christy Clark, saying the province needs to do its own review of the Gateway project in light of Ottawa's clear determination to expand the export capacity of the Alberta oil sector regardless of the risks to British Columbians.
"The real problem is that Mr. Harper is not behaving like the Prime Minister of Canada, he's behaving like the prime minister of Alberta. And as a result, the interests of British Columbians are not protected," she said in an interview.
Taseko Mines submits new plan to environment agency
After being denied a permit by Ottawa in November, 2010, Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Ltd. submitted a new proposal to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which has commenced the review process.
Taseko's new plan does not including dumping tailings into Fish Lake, as the previous one did. But critics say it would still put the lake and surrounding waterways in jeopardy.
The New Prosperity property represents the largest undeveloped gold-copper deposit in Canada, and its development would create the equivalent of 3,500 full-time jobs per year in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region over its 20-year life span.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent said the panel must complete its work in 12 months, but that deadline does not include the time required for Taseko to prepare an environmental impact statement, or to respond to any request for further information that the panel may make.
As yet, the government has not yet named members of the review panel, although the agency has completed the terms of reference for the panel and guidelines for the environmental impact statement.
In a corporate presentation last month, Taseko said it expects to receive its federal permit late this year and begin construction early in 2013, with operations commencing in 2015.
At full capacity, the $1-billion mine would produce 300,000 ounces of gold and 130,000 pounds of copper per year over its expected 20-year life.
- Shawn McCarthy