Resource Industries Will Suffer if Regulation is Not Trusted

If we are to have viable resource industries, we must have a strong and effective regulatory environment. That is not where we are today.

There are two kinds of opposition to resource projects. For some—for example marine-based salmon aquaculture, genetically modified foods, nuclear power, or anything to do with oil or gas production or transmission—there are opponents who are adamant, no matter what the regulatory environment.

They rarely have property near the project, but object to it in principal. Some of the groups get much of their funding from outside of Canada. They often organize protests and sometimes engage in civil disobedience. On rare occasions, a few radicals sabotage the equipment being used.

For these opponents, there is not much government can do except to recognize and honour people’s right to peaceful protest, and to otherwise enforce the rule of law.

The other kind of protest arises from people whose property is directly impacted by the resource project. They may not object in principle to what is happening, but do have concerns.

It is not just in rural areas. Those living or working in downtown Halifax are experiencing a long period of noise and dust, traffic diversion, and business interruption because of the building boom.

Just ask the businesses on Argyle Street what they have been through. But at least now they are reaping a reward of bigger crowds in their restaurants and shops.

Resource industries in rural areas create jobs, but they also have environmental impacts. A current example is the OSCO gravel pit near Glenholme which has been in operation for many years and was granted an approval last August to extend into another property they own, bringing operations closer to residences.

The approval is subject to numerous conditions including noise monitoring and management, setbacks from and protection of wetlands and watercourses, setbacks from property lines, rehabilitation of land after extraction has been completed, and ongoing communications with neighbours via a Community Liaison Committee.

Despite all that, many of the neighbours are not happy with the development. They are concerned about traffic, dust, impact on well water, noise, and the impact on local flora and fauna. They have formed a Residents’ Association to argue their case.

Although their concern focuses on the OSCO operation, the real problem is not there. With minor exceptions, OSCO has been following the rules, and those exceptions have been fixed when identified. Neighbours note that sometimes it was them that had to bring the exceptions to the attention of the Department of Environment.

More generally, they are upset that they did not have much chance to voice their concerns before the approval was given, and that in general the department’s rules are lax, and laxly enforced.

There is a lot of support for that opinion in the Auditor-General’s November report. It found that:

  1. The department failed to monitor compliance with terms and conditions on almost half the sample of projects that it reviewed. Furthermore, its record keeping of approvals and monitoring was deficient.
  2. The department does not assess whether its terms and conditions are effective in managing environmental risks.
  3. Some terms and conditions lack details such as deadlines and reporting requirements.
  4. Communications between the department and project neighbours, and its own inspectors, are inadequate.
  5. The department’s last follow-up showed 20 of the 43 prior recommendations were not completed by the department.

No wonder the neighbours are upset. This case may sort itself out over time. Two members of the Residents’ Association are now on the Community Liaison Committee, which has been provided a complete site tour. But, at best, the process will leave a bad taste.

Experiences like this, let alone the disgraceful pollution at Boat Harbour, or the mess left behind by Sydney Steel that had to be cleaned up at taxpayer expense, cast a shadow of suspicion over all government processes to protect the environment.

The Liberals have been supportive of most resource industries. But opposition will spread if voters don’t trust the management of environmental risks. The Ivany report correctly noted that getting this right is essential, calling for:

“Consistent use of the most effective, transparent and inclusive public engagement processes and methods to support decision-making on expansion of resource industries and management of renewable and non-renewable resources;

Excellence in regulatory systems and procedures, measured in terms of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, timeliness, fairness and transparency;

Adoption of the most effective and widely accepted certification standards for sustainable resource use, conservation and responsible harvesting practices;

Recognition of the rights of local communities to receive direct benefits from ongoing resource extraction activities, and to be protected from the burden of post-extraction environmental remediation costs and consequences.”

The government’s actions to date fall far below this standard. Doing much better is essential for future resource development.

Resource industries should enthusiastically support more effective regulation. When the regulator is not trusted, it is difficult for any project to get public acquiescence, let alone support. Good operators in an industry are glad to see weak or irresponsible ones kept out of the business to protect the public’s trust.

In the meantime, resource operators should look for every opportunity to go beyond the minimum regulatory requirements, particularly in early and open communications.

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