FORT NELSON, B.C. – British Columbia Environment Minister Mary Polak has done a complete turn around on a decision that would have exempted most of the natural gas produced in the province from mandatory environmental assessment.
After quietly passing an order in council Monday without public debate that would have removed about 99 per cent of the natural gas produced in the province from automatic environmental reviews, the government reversed the decision late Wednesday.
The announcement came on the same day a group of B.C. officials were kicked out of a First Nations forum on liquefied natural gas.
Polak has now apologized for the decision, saying the government failed to discuss the amendment with First Nations, prior to approval.
“Our government is committed to a strong, respectful and productive relationship with First Nations,” she said in a statement. “That is why we will rescind the amendment that would have removed the requirement for an environmental assessment for sweet gas facilities and destination resorts, until we have undertaken discussions with First Nations.”
“The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has been made aware of this decision, and respects the need for our government to have further discussions with First Nations.”
The Liberal government passed the order in council that would have meant natural gas plants producing so-called “sweet gas” would have been exempt from automatic environmental assessment, as of April 28. The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission said almost 99 per cent of the natural gas produced in the province is sweet gas.
The amendment to the Reviewable Projects Regulation also brought changes to the assessment process for ski and all-season resorts, which Polak said will also be rescinded.
On Wednesday, provincial bureaucrats were asked to leave a First Nations meeting on liquefied natural gas being held in Fort Nelson in northern B.C. They were escorted out of the summit meeting.
“There was no consultation as far as changing that policy,” said Chief Terry Teegee of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which represents eight First Nations communities in northern B.C. “We were blindsided.”
Cheryl Casimer, an executive of the First Nations Summit, called the revisions “another unacceptable example of government once again attempting to water down and minimize its consultation and accommodation obligations with our communities.”
In an interview Tuesday, Polak said that sweet gas requires relatively little purifying, whereas sour gas contains more than one per cent of toxic hydrogen sulphide that must be removed before the gas can be used.
Polak said those gas plants would continue to be regulated by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.
The conservation legal group West Coast Environmental Law deemed it “environmental deregulation.”
Also on Wednesday, several First Nations sent a request to B.C. Premier Christy Clark to meet and discuss the amendments.
“It’s a lesser process,” Teegee said of the oil and gas commission approval.
Many First Nations were equally upset that the decision was made without consultation, despite their interests in land use decisions that impact their traditional territories.
“In a stunningly stupid move, the province has effectively declared war on all B.C. First Nations and jeopardized all LNG discussions throughout the entire province of B.C.,” Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
The union, the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nation Summit all condemned the changes, which would have exempted destination resorts from the environmental review process.
Teegee said many First Nations have shown interest in the province’s nascent liquefied natural gas industry but now feel “betrayed” by the provincial government.
“They’re going to have to fix this problem,” he said.
Hours later the Environment Ministry sent out the news release.
“Our government sees a significant value in continuing to develop a government to government relationship with all First Nations. We remain actively engaged with First Nations in northeastern British Columbia, including shared decision making that respects the environment, First Nation values, and Treaty 8 and its associated rights,” Polak said.
– By Dene Moore in Vancouver
Follow @ByDeneMoore on Twitter