British Columbia’s Environmental Assessment Office bills itself as a “neutral” provincial agency.

But there is evidence that this is not the case, and that BC Environment Minister George Heyman — who is tasked with “revitalizing” the province’s environmental assessment law — needs to make serious reforms.

When a public regulator makes major decisions behind closed doors that favour corporate interests, and does not even notify the public, we have a problem.

When that happens, as it has on numerous occasions under BC’s environmental assessment regime, citizens may conclude that the Office is captured by the very companies it regulates — companies that have, in some cases, made handsome political donations to British Columbia’s two major political parties.

Consider, for example, Encana Corporation, a significant player in the natural gas industry in BC’s South Peace region.

In one ruling after another between 2014 and 2015, Encana received a free pass from the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) without the public hearing a word about it until after the fact.

Those rulings involved not one, not two, but three gas plants that Encana proposed to build near the community of Dawson Creek — including one that was the largest of its kind built in Western Canada in the past 30 years.

To be clear, none of these were minor facilities. They all qualified as “major” and therefore “reviewable” projects under the Environmental Assessment Act’s regulations.

In each case, Encana asked the EAO to “exempt” the gas plants from lengthy environmental assessments that would have required public notification and consultation. And in each case, the EAO granted the company’s request without first notifying the public. The company was thus spared the expense of having its projects subject to more transparent public environmental screenings.

All three plants are now built, owned and operated by Veresen Midstream LP, under an agreement where the company agrees to compress and transport all the hydrocarbons that Encana drills and fracks in the region over the next 30 years.

Here’s the problem: Encana’s requests to the EAO were entirely allowable.

The Act grants the Office powers to exempt reviewable projects from assessments. When and how such calls are made, however, is often completely shielded from public scrutiny until after the fact.

That’s what happened in the three Encana cases. And that is precisely what Environment Minister Heyman should fix if his revitalization efforts are to have a lasting, positive impact.

First Nation leaders and prominent environmental lawyers all recently told Heyman and/or key officials in his ministry that the EAO’s powers to exempt major projects should be scrapped. Members of the public echoed those concerns. There is simply no legitimate reason to give the EAO such extraordinary powers.

Yet BC’s recent proposals to reform the Act would maintain the exemption power, with only one change — that the EAO recommend an exemption and the Minister then make the decision.

Leaving the clause in place opens the system to abuse and raises questions.

Questions like: Did Encana’s generous donations to BC’s major political parties have any bearing on the back-to-back-to-back favourable rulings that the company secured?

According to the searchable Elections BC database, donations by Encana to BC’s Liberal and New Democratic parties combined were more than $1.32 million from 2005 to the present, with the overwhelming majority of those funds (more than 92 per cent) going to the Liberals.

Elections BC also reports that former Encana chairman and CEO Gwyn Morgan, a one-time advisor to former BC Premier Christy Clark, personally donated more than $263,000 to the BC Liberals.

(Early in its mandate, the present NDP government banned corporate and union donations. But there are myriad ways that such entities continue to wield influence.)

As Encana’s donations flowed, the government launched the Site C project, and BC Hydro began spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build new transmission lines from its two existing hydro dams on the Peace River. As those new lines were built, it was expected that the fossil fuel industry would consume much of that power.

Documents posted by the EAO after it granted Encana exemptions at its Sunrise, Saturn and Tower gas plants show that the regulator gave the company what it wanted partly because the plants would be powered by hydroelectricity, and not natural gas. According to the EAO, that meant that the plants would have few “significant” environmental impacts.

But full environmental assessments would have allowed members of the public to question such assertions. For starters, what about all the increased natural gas drilling and fracking to supply gas to the three plants?

A public environmental assessment might also have allowed members of the public to raise questions about the “cumulative” impact of the full range of gas industry activities on the region’s fragile waterways, First Nations and farming communities — something that environmental assessments often neglect.

Recently I got a firsthand view of what that impact looks like when I toured the Farmington area, south of the Peace and Kiskatinaw rivers. In field after field, I arrived to see 20 acres or more of farmland stripped of its topsoil to make way for giant, multi-well gas pads.

I stood beside massive earthen dams that had essentially turned quarter sections of farmland into giant industrial water farms — where hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of freshwater are staged for use in brute-force gas industry fracking operations.

And I watched as huge swaths of wheat fields were turned into new natural gas and toxic wastewater pipeline routes, that linked the mushrooming industrial infrastructure together.

All of these developments underscored the growing fragility of BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve in a region where the assault on farmland is starkly evident at the nearby, massively over-budget Site C hydroelectric dam that would destroy thousands of acres of our province’s most productive farmland.

None of this apparently constituted anything “significant” as far as the EAO was concerned.

If you want evidence that BC’s environmental assessment legislation is in serious need of an overhaul, look no further.

It’s time to put a full stop to the EAO’s discretionary powers to exempt major industrial projects from environmental assessments and to restore the public’s rightful place in the process.

Author: Ben Parfitt

Ben is the resource policy analyst at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office. He joined the CCPA staff team in 2005 after years working as an investigative journalist with numerous magazines, and previous to that as a reporter with The Vancouver Sun. He is author and co-author of two books on forestry issues and currently devotes much of his policy research to natural resources, with special attention paid to energy, water, and forest resources and climate change.