Environmental Licensing Process Hurts Manitoba

Commentary, Regulation, Robert Sopuck

At the end of 2003, Premier Doer gave his annual “State of the Province” address. Such speeches paint a fairly broad-brush picture, expertly woven together by the legion of spin doctors that seem to be a permanent fixture in today’s political world.

But the Premier departed from the usual “everything-is-rosy-but-we-can-do-better” message to level some fairly blunt criticisms of the current environmental licensing process. This did come as a surprise, especially from an NDP Premier. But he’s right.

Part of Manitoba’s economic strategy is the development of our hydro-electric potential. But Wuskwatim and ultimately Conawapa are mega-projects, subject to a mind-numbing environmental review and debate.

The building of hydro dams does provide economic benefits, at least during the construction phase. These types of projects can provide significant political benefits as well. Hence the Premier’s impatience with a long and drawn-out environmental process.

Some will say, “But what’s wrong with environmental assessments; don’t we care about the environment?” This would be a valid question if the environment licensing process was about protecting the environment. Instead, it has become a media circus, where activist groups are provided a taxpayer-funded forum to protest against development.

Look at the process and guidelines for the proposed Wuskwatim hydro development (click here). A good first question would be “How does anything ever get done?”

The environmental process has become so convoluted and political that only developers with “deep pockets” or Crown corporations with endless access to public funds can navigate through it. The activists have become adept at perverting this process away from an objective scientific consideration of the actual environmental affects of a project towards a political discussion about whether we even need the project.

That’s not what environmental assessment should be about. The decision to build a hydro dam or invest in a mine, potato plant, lumber mill, or ski hill already tells us that there is a “need” for the project. Accountability falls on the shoulders of the corporation or government that made the decision. Having anything other than the environment be the subject of hearings is a complete perversion of the process.

Another little gem dreamed up by activists is “cumulative effects assessment,” which means that the proponents of the Wuskwatim dam will need to assess the project in light of all of the other dams in Manitoba and, heck, maybe even all of Canada, a clearly impossible task. But wait, it gets even better. We now have “intervener funding,” whereby proponents have to pay for the intervention of activists. Nice tidy little circle, I’d say.

Of course, we know that Wuskwatim will eventually be built, so why not expend these resources on making it the best project we can instead of wasting time and money on largely useless processes? Remember those projects that were the subject of exhaustive and negative public reviews but are now considered valuable assets. Some that spring to mind are Simplot potatoes, the Russell Ski Hill, the Oak Hammock marsh, Rafferty-Alameda Reservoir and Louisiana Pacific, among others. Lucky for us that we had the Floodway, Lake of the Prairies, and the Winnipeg River power dams built before this process came along.

Good wishes to the Premier in his attempt to fix the licensing mess. It’s obvious that an independent review of the whole thing is in order.