Friday, 18 April 2014

The Little Sign

I was driving into Prince Albert yesterday to a Forest Management Planning meeting with Weyerhaeuser when I came across this little sign near Debden while stopped at a stop sign. I was struck by the irony of the situation.

I've worked a lot with forest companies and the Forest Service over the last few years on forest plan development as well as the provincial standards that guide that work. As part of these plans and standards, forest companies are required to engage local communities and consult with First Nations treaty rights holders prior to any new activities taking place on the ground. The oil and gas sector, on the other hand, only needs to stick a little sign in the ground to make sure the drilling crew doesn't get lost on their way to the site. So long as their activities fall under the umbrella of 'exploration', they are not required to do an Environmental Impact Assessment or any engagement and consultation with local communities. In Saskatchewan, a project on private land like the one in the photo is only required to do an Environmental Review, which is simply a checklist full of yes or no questions that the company fills in themselves and is then reviewed by Lands Branch. In most cases the work does not need to wait for the Lands Branch review to be complete before starting. Public engagement and First Nations consultation is not part of this review. In some cases, up to 80% of the infrastructure required to carry out the eventual project is constructed during this 'exploration' stage, meaning most of the set up of their sites is not subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment, consultation or public review. Personally, I don't think this is right.

But it caused me to appreciate the work of the forest companies. Their activities are more visible than other sectors. We see the cuts. Their footprint appears large. And because of that, and the heat they sometimes take for it, they have a government imposed set of requirements for planning and consultation that the oil/gas and mining sectors don't have. Look at the bigger picture, where the environmental risks are greater and what is really at stake, and it is really too bad that governments don't require the same level of planning, engagement and disclosure from the oil/gas and mining sectors that they require of the foresters. Yes, forestry is visible and we don't like to see it while we're sitting in our boats while out fishing. And when done poorly, it can do a lot of damage to habitat, etc. But when it comes to punching holes through our drinking water aquifers and other things like that, the margins for error are very small and the implications of any mistakes are great. Which makes the reality that the oil and gas companies are not required to disclose any part of the nature of their plans to local communities and citizens prior to the exploration stage very troubling. And wrong.

I'm not opposed to oil and gas development in principle. It's great for the economy and things like that. I get it. However, I am suggesting that if the forest companies are required to and are able to do these things, why can't the oil and gas companies be required to do it too? Through the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, companies like Weyerhaeuser and groups like CPAWS have proven that by working together, communities can have the economic benefits of the resources in the area while also being responsible stewards of the land. However, without engagement and consultation, this balance will be very difficult to achieve.

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