Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Perils of Marine Planning in BC

The federal government's planning process for the wet coast of Canada is floundering. It's not just the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area ( PNCIMA ) initiative on the North Coast either. There are other government processes active on the north and central coasts as well, that are in more or less direct competition with development proposals for the offshore, especially offshore oil and gas. The Scott Islands Marine Wildlife Conservation initiative is just one example; that plan was a deliberate attempt by David Anderson to throw a spanner in the works of efforts to lift the moratorium. Guess who won that battle?; well, actually it's a stalemate so far.

The same thing is happening on the south coast, only few people are noticing. The most obvious example is the Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area ( SSGNMCA ) initiative. Laudable as this project may seem on the surface, especially given the precarious status of the southern resident killer whales in the area, it is actually somewhat ludicrous to even consider designating one of the world's greatest shipping routes, namely Boundary Pass connecting Vancouver to the Pacific, as a conservation area. I mean, either it's a major maritime route or a vital conservation area, but you can't have it both ways, because having several thousand enormous vessels passing through it each year is incompatible with the goals of conservation. If you are serious about declaring the area a conservation area, then, fine, you'll have to walk the talk by banning commercial ships from the zone. The Yanks have done it off the coast of Washington state, where tankers are banned from a marine area adjacent to Olympic National Park. Fat chance of the Canucks doing likewise in Boundary Pass - where else is traffic supposed to go? Rosario Strait on the US side of the maritime boundary? Don't even think about it!

If all of this weren't bad enough, the government supports the Pacific Gateway initiative, which if it goes through will probably result in a doubling or tripling of maritime shipping traffic in and out of Vancouver, not to mention PR. Pity the orcas!

It's kind of like Ducks Unlimited building their Canadian HQ right smack in the middle of a Manitoba marsh, except that in the case of the Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area it's the reverse: here the plan is to plunk a conservation area down in the midst of a busy shipping corridor. This is really putting the cat among the pigeons. Government is forever doing silly things like that, promoting one goal in one direction and then promoting another goal that is basically incompatible with the first. Just like with the explosive growth of the oil sands, supported with tax write-offs, at the same time as we tout our commitment to Kyoto. Which is it - oil sands or Kyoto? Which is it - SSGNMCA for Boundary Pass and a conservation strategy for killer whales, or massive expansion of the Roberts Bank container terminal? Which is it, approval of five or six big projects with shipping components in Kitimat and Prince Rupert, or a credible planning process in the form of PNCIMA? Okay, fine, if through PNCIMA these projects eventually get approved, that's okay, if that's what people want. But why consult people in a region about their collective future if the regulatory processes applicable to these projects ( which collectively amount to a megaproject, in my opinion ) are going to operate under the old rules and the old system. This is why people don't trust government. For PNCIMA to be credible, maybe there should be a moratorium on the approval processes for all these projects, until such time as PNCIMA is up and running and has come up with a plan in, say, five to ten years. THAT would show that the government means business. But, of course, it will never happen.

Among the problems associated with PNCIMA is the fact that the process engages only First Nations communities, and not the muncipalities such as Prince Rupert and Kitimat where most if not all of the proposed coastal development is scheduled to occur. For PNCIMA to be truly effective as a planning tool, all stakeholders must be part of the process.

In short, by setting up competing processes, with a two-track approach to policy objectives, we seem to be creating a situation in which conflict is inherent and unavoidable; and then we ask and expect all parties to duke it out and reach a consensus. This is totally unrealistic, in my opinion. Instead, what we have to do is incorporate sustainable development processes and thinking into existing processes, such as the NEB, TERMPOL, etc., so that conservation is built into the planning process rather than superimposed on top of it. As someone once said years ago, the real sign that Canada practices what it preaches when it comes to the environment will be when there is no longer a department called Environment Canada. Instead, sustainable development principles and respect for the environment will be built in to the policies, programs, practices and intitiatives of all government departments, across the board.


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