The NDP rose to power in 2017 vowing to take action on climate change, old-growth logging, the Trans Mountain pipeline, endangered species and more. Three years in, The Narwhal examines how the government has fared on the environment
By Sarah Cox, for The Narwhal
B.C.’s NDP government came to power in 2017 promising to protect the environment.
“[Former Premier] Christy Clark and the BC Liberals have chosen to pit jobs against the environment,” the party’s election platform said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
From protecting drinking water sources to reducing carbon emissions, the BC NDP’s platform detailed the actions it would take to protect the province’s environment and create jobs.
“B.C. was an early champion of a price on carbon and other green policies,” Ecojustice Executive Director Devon Page pointed out in a statement following the election call today.
“Yet the province’s laws and policies haven’t always lived up to its green reputation,” Page said. “Greenhouse gases rose under the NDP-Green coalition, and the government failed to live up to its commitment to introduce endangered species legislation.”
What environmental promises did the NDP make? And, once in power, how many pledges did the party keep?
The Narwhal dove in. Here’s what we found.
Stopping the Trans Mountain pipeline
The NDP pledged to use “every tool in the toolbox” to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline from going ahead, saying the project was not in B.C.’s interest and would result in a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic.
“It doesn’t, and won’t, meet the necessary conditions of providing benefits to British Columbia without putting our environment and our economy at unreasonable risk,” the election platform stated.
In 2018, the government announced its intention to explore restricting the transport of diluted bitumen across the province. (Alberta Premier Rachel Notley responded with a brief boycott of B.C. wine.)
In January 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the B.C. government does not have jurisdiction to regulate the flow of bitumen through the province.
The NDP government opted not to order a “made in B.C.” environmental assessment of the project. It could have done that following a 2016 Supreme Court decision that found the former BC Liberal government’s decision to hand over responsibility for the project’s environmental assessment to the National Energy Board was not legal and the provincial government has a duty to represent the best interests of British Columbians.
Protecting endangered species
B.C. has more species at risk of going extinct than anywhere else in Canada. “Yet, we’re one of the only provinces in the country without stand-alone species at risk legislation,” the NDP noted in its election platform.
The party promised to enact endangered species legislation, reiterating its pledge in Premier John Horgan’s mandate letter to Environment Minister George Heyman.
After more than three years in power, the NDP government has failed to keep its election promise.
Almost 1,340 species are now on B.C.’s red and blue lists of species at risk of extinction. Another 1,037 species meet the provincial status requirements for red and blue listings but have not yet been added.
Scientists like UBC biologist Sally Otto, who sits on the federal species at risk advisory committee, have urged the NDP to take action to protect endangered species.
“The bottom line for caribou and many other wildlife species is crystal clear: without timely and meaningful protection and restoration measures, including a provincial endangered species law, these creatures will be lost forever,” wrote Otto and a dozen other scientists in an opinion piece published in The Narwhal.
Improving management of old-growth forests
The NDP promised to modernize land-use planning “to effectively and sustainably manage” B.C.’s old-growth forests.
“We will take an evidence-based scientific approach and use the ecosystem-based management of the Great Bear Rainforest as a model,” the party said in its election platform.
In 2019, the NDP government commissioned foresters Al Gorley and Garry Merkel to conduct an old-growth strategic review.
In their report, submitted to the government at the end of April, Gorley and Merkel called for a paradigm shift in the way B.C. manages old-growth. They said old forests should be managed for ecosystem health, not for timber.
The duo provided 14 recommendations for the government and called for an immediate deferral of logging in areas at risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.
In response, the government said it would defer logging in nine areas and would provide a more fulsome update in the spring of 2021.
None of the nine areas, which total almost 353,000 hectares, was slated for immediate logging. Some have a notable absence of old-growth, while others have already experienced clear cutting.
It’s business as usual everywhere else in the province, including in the old-growth forests in the central Walbran and Fairy Creek on southern Vancouver Island, in endangered caribou habitat in the Anzac Valley north of Prince George and on the Sunshine Coast.
Judy Thomas surveys clear cut logging in the Anzac Valley with journalist Sarah Cox. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal
Banning grizzly bear trophy hunting
The NDP promised to ban the grizzly trophy hunt. “It’s not just wrong, it’s bad for the economy,” the party’s election platform said. “The trophy hunting of grizzly bears delivers fewer jobs than wildlife viewing operations, and is opposed by most hunters.”
The new government moved quickly to fulfill its pledge, and a ban on grizzly bear trophy hunting came into effect on Nov. 30, 2017.
Taking action on climate change
The NDP pledged to implement a “comprehensive” climate action plan to reduce carbon pollution and get the province back on track to meet its climate targets.
In 2018, the government released the CleanBC plan to encourage the use of more clean and renewable energy. By the end of 2019, the government had spent $3.17 million to promote the plan.
But B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. From 2017 to 2018, carbon emissions in the province rose by 3.5 per cent, to 65.5 million tonnes.
B.C. missed an emission reduction target to cut greenhouse gases 33 per cent from 2007 figures by 2020. The NDP government revised the target, saying it will slash emissions 40 per cent by 2030. It’s unclear how the new goal will be achieved.
The NDP’s election platform said the party would phase in the federally mandated $50 a tonne carbon price by 2022 over three years, starting in 2020. On April 1, 2019, B.C.’s carbon tax rose from $35 a tonne to $40 a tonne. Following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the B.C. government announced the carbon tax will remain at $40 a tonne until further notice.
In 2018, the NDP government approved the LNG Canada export project, which will generate about four megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year in the first of two planned phases. That’s equivalent to putting more than 800,000 cars on the road for a year.
The four megatonnes will account for 10 per cent of B.C.’s entire carbon budget by 2050, placing massive pressure on other sectors — such as transportation, building and industry — to undergo a rapid decarbonization.
The government says CleanBC will take the province 75 per cent of the way to the 2030 target. But the NDP hasn’t identified how it will close the 25 per cent gap.
Earth scientist David Hughes, who was a scientific researcher for 32 years at the Geological Survey of Canada, examined the B.C. government’s emissions math in a recent report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
When the LNG Canada project is factored in, Hughes found that emissions from oil and gas production will exceed the province’s 2050 target by 160 per cent, even if all other emissions are reduced to zero by 2035.
LNG Canada is one of seven liquified natural gas projects in various stages of proposal, planning and construction in B.C.
The NDP said it would appoint a scientific panel to review the practice of hydraulic fracturing “to ensure that gas is produced safely, and that our environment is protected.” The panel assessment would include impacts on water and the role gas production plays in seismic activity.
The government followed through and appointed a three-member, independent panel. The panel submitted its final report to Michelle Mungall, former minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources, in February 2019.
But whether or not the government will implement the majority of the panel’s recommendations remains to be seen. And despite the NDP’s commitment to ensure the gas “is produced safely,” the scientific review did not include an examination of the public health implications of fracking, in keeping with the government’s quiet assurance to the industry lobby group Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that the hot button issue would not be included in the panel’s mandate.
Even so, the panel found that fracking entails numerous unknown risks to human health and the environment. Panel members cautioned that the severity of those risks is unknown due to a lack of data, noting they were not aware of any health-related studies being conducted in northeast B.C., which is covered with thousands of fracking wells, including in the middle of communities and on farmland.
The panel also found a “profound absence of knowledge” about the presence and migration of fracking fluids — a proprietary mix of chemicals — below the ground.
The panel’s report raised concerns about the thousands of earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing and wastewater disposal wells in northeastern B.C. It found that “the maximum magnitude of an event that could be induced in [northeastern B.C.] is unknown.”
The government’s response, quietly posted on its website but not sent to media, said new groundwater observation wells near Fort Nelson had been installed, mapping of more than 55 aquifers had been completed and that it would map zones likely to experience greater ground motion from seismic events. It said it had also established a cross-government working group to develop “short-term and long-term action plans” for implementing the panel’s recommendations.
Northeast B.C. is poised for a fracking boom to supply the LNG Canada project.
Adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The NDP promised to adopt the UN declaration, which outlines global standards for upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples.
The government kept its commitment, passing legislation in November 2019 to enshrine the declaration in B.C. law. The declaration states that large resource projects require the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples on whose territories the projects will be built.
How the declaration is going to be implemented remains an open question and the Wet’suwet’en conflict in early 2020 illustrated the complexity of this commitment.
Banning political donations from corporations and unions
Saying it would “take big money out of politics,” the NDP promised to ban corporate and union donations to bring B.C. in line with other Canadian jurisdictions. The party moved quickly once in power, passing a law in November 2017, and donations are now limited to B.C. residents, with a cap of $1,200 a year.
Prior to the new law, corporations such as Imperial Metals, the owner of the Mount Polley mine, and mining titan Teck Resources Ltd., whose coal operations have polluted a transboundary waterway with selenium, donated more than $1 million to political parties.
Banning fish farming on wild salmon migration routes
The NDP pledged to implement the recommendations of the Cohen Commission, “keeping farm sites out of important salmon migration routes, and supporting research and transparent monitoring to minimize the risk of disease transfer from captive to wild fish.”
It also promised to provide incentives to help the aquaculture industry transition to closed containment where possible.
In December 2018, the government announced that salmon farms in the Broughton archipelago would be closed or moved by 2023, following an agreement among the B.C. and federal governments, First Nations and two fish farm companies, Marine Harvest Canada and Cermaq Canada.
Salmon farms remain along wild salmon migration routes in Clayoquot Sound, the Discovery Islands and elsewhere.
The NDP does not appear to have made any announcements about supporting research and transparent monitoring to minimize the risk of disease transfer from captive to wild fish. Nor has it provided incentives for a transition to closed containment farming.
Improving wildlife management
The NDP’s election platform said B.C.’s biodiversity, fish and wildlife populations, and the habitat upon which they depend, were under threat due to lack of funding, government cuts to staff and ineffective policies.
The party pledged to ensure dedicated funding for wildlife and habitat conservation.
Instead, the government has cut spending on matters related to fish, wildlife and the environment, according to Jesse Zeman, director of the fish and wildlife restoration program for the BC Wildlife Federation.
“The government has publicly announced it’s increasing investment, but behind the scenes it has clawed back base budgets and it has cut funding from the Forest Enhancement Society of BC,” Zeman told The Narwhal.
“Given B.C.’s biodiversity, we still [have] the most underfunded fish and wildlife agency in North America.”
The government also did not follow through on its election promise to dedicate all hunting fees to fish and wildlife management, Zeman said.
Increasing the budget for BC Parks
The NDP said it would restore funding for BC Parks, and hire additional park rangers and conservation officers.
The party’s election platform said it aimed to boost the BC Parks budget by $10 million in each of 2018-19 and 2019-20 to restore parks and hire additional park rangers and conservation officers.
The BC Parks budget has only increased by $416,000 since 2017-18, according to budget documents. It’s now $49.7 million.
The Narwhal asked the B.C. Environment Ministry for the number of conservation officers and park rangers in 2017, as well as for today’s numbers. The ministry did not respond by press time, more than two business days after we put in the request.
Updating environmental assessment legislation
The NDP said it would update B.C.’s environment assessment legislation and processes for major resource projects to ensure they respect the legal rights of First Nations and “meet the public’s expectations of a strong, transparent process.”
The government passed Bill 51, the Environmental Assessment Act, in late 2018.
Scientists commended the NDP for overhauling the act, calling the bill a “good start” and noting it allows First Nations communities to be involved at the start of assessments.
But an open letter from 180 academic scientists identified three “deficiencies” in the new legislation: a lack of scientific independence, peer-review and transparency.
One of the main deficiencies of the legislation, according to the scientists, is that it still allows project proponents to oversee, collect and present the vast majority of evidence for environmental assessments.
The legislation also has no requirement that all data generated by the project proponent, or gathered by a technical advisory committee, be made public. Nor does it include criteria for how the government’s final assessment decisions will be made.
Ensuring clean, safe drinking water
The NDP singled out the former Liberal government for leaving British Columbians in dozens of communities under ongoing boil water advisories.
The party said it would work with the federal government to improve drinking water quality in B.C. communities and ensure the permitting process prioritizes local drinking water needs. It also said it would review the Water Sustainability Act to ensure drinking water sources are protected.
In July 2019, B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer found the B.C. government is failing to protect drinking water from increased risks that include climate change and industrial activities such as logging, saying accountability measures for safeguarding drinking water are “of grave concern.”
The health ministry and the Provincial Health Officer are “not sufficiently protecting drinking water for British Columbians,” Bellringer told reporters.
The audit came as communities around B.C. grappled with imminent plans for logging and other industrial activities in watersheds that supply their drinking, irrigation and, in some cases, fire-fighting water. B.C. currently has 200 boil water advisories and five do not consume water advisories, according to the website Water Today.
Bringing back investment in clean energy
Saying the Liberal government had made B.C. “unfriendly” to investments in wind and solar projects, the NDP pledged to bring investment in wind, solar and other clean energy projects back to B.C.
Instead, faced with a growing glut of energy in the province — even before the hugely over budget Site C dam comes online at some unknown point in the future — the government indicated it would shut the door on most new wind and solar projects. It introduced Bill 17 to amend the Clean Energy Act, eliminating the requirement that B.C. be self-sufficient in new power and allowing the province to import cheap power from the U.S., potentially including coal and gas-fired power.
The NDP government also said it would not renew contracts with independent power producers, leaving family-run, green and clean power projects facing bankruptcy after supplying power to the grid and remote communities for decades.
Author Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C.