The B.C. Supreme Court is expected to render a verdict soon on a dispute over the province's rejection of a copper-gold mine proposal. The judgment might finally solve a cold-case mystery – why the B.C. Liberal government, in a high-profile campaign to open new mines, axed the Morrison mine after the provincial environmental assessment concluded the project would have no significant adverse effects.
At the time of the decision, then-environment minister Terry Lake explained that his government had applied new "risk versus benefit" criteria that the proponent, Pacific Booker Minerals Inc., failed to meet. But he acknowledged that the new rules still needed to be codified.
Today, more than a year later, it is still not clear just what it takes to get to "yes" in B.C. when it comes to the mining sector.
That has not stopped other mine projects from moving ahead, and Premier Christy Clark's goal to open eight new mines by 2015 is tracking well enough: Since her jobs plan was announced, two mines have opened and five more are in construction or at least have permits.
That makes the Morrison mine decision all the more puzzling. Ms. Clark says she is an unabashed champion of resource extraction, and believes her election victory last May gave her a mandate to move forward on economic development.
The final report by the B.C. environmental assessment office noted the mine proponent had satisfied concerns about fish habitat, wildlife, water quality and First Nations consultation. Then, in the last two pages, the tone changed abruptly: potential risks still outweigh the benefits, it found. Based on that conclusion, cabinet rejected the proposal.
The company headed to court, arguing it was unfair to apply new criteria that were never part of the 10-year assessment process.
Shortly before the trial began in July, an envelope from an anonymous source landed on the company CEO's desk. Addressed by hand in crabby print, with a Victoria postmark, the packet contained what appears to be a draft report to the government by Derek Sturko, the executive director of the provincial environmental assessment office.
That version had a different conclusion that could have resulted in Ms. Clark presiding over a ribbon-cutting for a new mine rather than awaiting a court ruling on whether her government capriciously quashed a major resource project.
In an affidavit filed in court, Pacific Booker's CEO Erik Tornquist described how he obtained the copy of an Aug. 13, 2012, version of the environmental assessment office's recommendations – and learned how close his company had been to building the mine. "I note that the draft recommendations do not recommend that Pacific Booker's application for an environmental assessment certificate be denied."
The document included two possible scenarios.
In the first, Mr. Sturko recommended issuing an Environmental Assessment Certificate to Pacific Booker for the Morrison project.
In the next paragraph, he offered a second option, prefaced by a string of question marks.
Cabinet might wish to consider some broad factors – such as economic benefits versus First Nations' land claims and the potential risk to sockeye salmon. But he repeated it here so that it could not be lost, that the project presented no significant adverse effects on the environment, and that First Nations had been consulted and accommodated appropriately.
A week later, the final report was worded such that cabinet concluded the economic benefits were outweighed by the risk to the environment.
In an interview, the current minister of environment, Mary Polak, agreed that the mining industry is still waiting for the certainty that was lost with this decision. Mr. Lake's promise of clear rules was left on her desk.
"He talked about trying to find ways to better codify what people can expect in terms of risk assessments so there is not this feeling of uncertainty – why this project and not that project," she said. "That is now part and parcel of the review we are undertaking of the whole environmental assessment process."
To date, the B.C. Jobs Plan has had disappointing results. A transparent and science-based decision-making process, so clearly lacking here, could only help.