Thursday, August 22, 2013

Federal Change of Tone on Ring of Fire Should Be Followed Up with Real Action

The following letter to the editor of the Sudbury Star was published in the Star on August 21, 2013 as, "Feds should pursue stronger EA on Ring of Fire". You may wish to view the online version of this letter at the Sudbury Star's website, and review comments posted there, including my own substantial response to a known local anonymous Conservative Party troll. I've reproduced my comments below, but for proprietary reasons, I have not reproduced the troll's comments from the Sudbury Star website.

Also, I offered some observations online to the original article, "Ring of Fire a "legacy project": Minister", published by the Sudbury Star on Saturday, August 17th. I've reproduced those comments here as well.


Re: Ring of Fire a "legacy project": Minister -- Aug. 17.

Kenora MP Greg Rickford, minister of Science and Technology, with responsibilities for FedNor and the Ring of Fire, was in Greater Sudbury last week to discuss resource development in northwestern Ontario. Rickford says he wants to push partisan politics aside and begin a process of "thorough consultation". This new approach from Stephen Harper's Conservative government is long over due. The extraction of mineral resources in the remote Ring of Fire represents a multibillion-dollar enterprise, potentially creating thousands of jobs throughout the North. The challenges are significant -- but the boost to the North's economy (and the province) may be worth the investment of public dollars on capital projects, such as a rail or road access.

With comparisons being made between the Ring of Fire and Alberta's oil sands, it's no wonder that environmentalists and First Nations communities are wary of runaway development decisions being made by governments without due consideration of future impacts. While bitumen mining in northern Alberta has brought economic growth, it has also created significant social and environmental issues that will likely remain for centuries. To avoid similar negative impacts, a truly comprehensive and consultative environmental assessment process needs to be priority number one.

However, until now, the Conservative government has seemed content to put itself at odds with environmental organizations and First Nations. As a result, the government has needlessly contributed to delaying development in the Ring of Fire. Environmentalists and First Nations leaders instigated a judicial review of the federal government's paper-based environmental assessment process, demanding this precedent-setting project be subject to a more robust form of assessment. In part, this review has led Cliffs Natural Resources, the Ohio-based multinational which is seeking to develop its Black Thor deposit in the Ring, to call a temporary halt to its environmental assessment. If a judge rules that the current environmental assessment process is inadequate, Cliffs will need to go back to square one and follow a new process.

This spring, the court ruled that the federal government and Cliffs were causing "unnecessary delay" in the judicial review proceedings, after filing failed motions against First Nations participants. This kind of legal bullying is hardly the sort of relationship-building needed to bring diverse stakeholders together to find a way forward.

Clearly, there hasn't been a lot of co-operation up to this point. There's simply too much at stake for Northern Ontario if we don't get this right. We have but one chance to lay the groundwork for how this important mineral development will proceed. The principle of sustainable development must be at the heart development in the Ring of Fire. This includes the sort of "thorough consultation" envisioned now by Rickford.

If the Conservative government is serious about moving forward with the Ring of Fire in a non-partisan and consultative way, they could back up their words with real actions, and require a more thorough and consultative environmental assessment process.


Online Comments to the August 21st Letter to the Editor

Although the government calls the process a “comprehensive” environmental assessment, in reality it’s anything but. What Cliffs is undertaking right now is a paper-based process which is controlled by Cliffs. Cliffs must answer a lot of technical questions as put forward by governments in their Terms of Reference, but the questions asked by our government are far from comprehensive. Indeed, the very nature of the assessment guarantees that a truly comprehensive analysis won’t be undertaken.

Specifically, there is no comprehensive plan for resource development within the Ring of Fire. Cliffs isn’t the only mining company moving forward with development, but it is probably further along than the others. But rather than our governments requiring a comprehensive analysis from all players, one which would address cumulative impacts from resource development, what the feds said would be appropriate was a one-off paper-based process with an inadequate Terms of Reference as its starting point.

First Nations were not consulted on this decision, despite treaty rights which strongly suggest that nation-to-nation consultation ought to have occurred. From an environmental standpoint, the Terms of Reference for the paper-based process fail to address significant expected impacts related to climate changing carbon emissions from power generating and transport. The long-term health of the fragile physical environment of this remote part of Northern Ontario will only be assessed in so far as this one specific project is concerned, so again, cumulative impacts from expected resource development will not be looked at. And finally, given that the current “comprehensive” assessment is paper-based, Cliffs can choose to ignore public input – as long as the narrow and inadequate Terms of Reference requirements are met.

I certainly don’t go in for duplication, which is why I was happy to see Minister Rickford signal a change in tone from the Federal government. Had the Harper Conservatives been interested in moving this project forward in a timely fashion, they would have consulted with First Nations and come to a tri-lateral agreement with FN’s and the Province over the scope of the assessment. Rather, by thumbing their nose at First Nations and environmentalists, Harper’s government has assured that the project would be stalled due to legal actions. Anyone paying attention would have known this. First Nations and environmentalists had been very clear: at a minimum, a joint review panel process was needed, given the complexity of this development proposal, and the lack of comprehensive plan for northern resource development.

Why, then, did the feds decide to push ahead without consultation and with a terribly inadequate process? The only reason could have been “politics”, but now in hindsight (related to this project, and to stalled pipeline projects which couldn’t be bullied through the system), it’s clear that beating up on FN’s and ignoring environmental concerns which lead to sidelining significant economic development initiatives isn’t winning over the hearts and minds of voters. In fact, it’s turning Canadians away from this Conservative government.

Real conservatives understand that it’s best to do things right the first time, rather than spend money on costly remediation. Yet, up until now, Harper’s brand of Conservatives have engaged in doing just that. Rather than doing things right the first time, Harper’s Conservatives decided to play politics with an important economic development initiative in Northern Ontario. As a result, all ROF stakeholders are the losers – and that includes all Northern Ontarians like you and me.


Online Comments to the August 17th Article

It's good to hear that MInister Rickford is looking for a non-partisan way forward, one which involves "thorough consultation". A good start to this consultative process for Rickford might be to lean on decision-makers who decided that a paper-based Environmental Assessment was the best way forward given the significant number of environmental issues with Cliffs Chromite project which the public quite rightly should be engaged in. The decision for a paper-based EA made by federal officials has since been tied up in court proceedings, in part leading to Cliffs putting a hold on further activities - costing us all time and money, and maybe impacting our future prosperity as well.

Minister Rickford is right: development in the ROF isn't a partisan issue - or at least, shouldn't be treated as one. Unfortunately, right-wing political parties who continually call for development right now at all costs, and who allude to the ROF becoming (*gag*) Ontario's "oil sands" (and by doing so invoke the environmental calamities and mismanagement which have historically gone along with tar sands development - and international whirlwind that mismanagement is reaping), aren't getting the message that people (voters) are looking for solutions and ways forward which prove to be a net benefit, socially, environmentally and economically. To do so, partisanship must be put aside - else we end up with runaway development for the sake of the bottom line of foreign multinationals who get the pie, while people living in impacted areas get the crumbs, as well as the costs of sweeping up.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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