Meanwhile, our own public discussion remains either muted or desperate
Political observers and those interested in the “fracking” debate alike were surprised recently when Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley announced that an independent panel would be established to investigate the controversial oil extraction method. The announcement came in the midst of a by-election in St. George’s-Stephenville East, the district where most of the proposed hydraulic fracturing would occur. The Minister admitted that the decision to establish an independent panel was largely political (e.g. an attempt to get more support for the local PC candidate). The ploy failed, however, and the Liberal candidate won handily.
What’s unfortunate about this decision is that it took a troubled party that was losing yet another by-election (its fourth) to adopt what local residents and fracking opponents have been requesting for a long time. The current administration has always been slow to respond to local concerns on this matter. Initially, they expressed support for the proposal. On March 13, 2013, then-Minister Tom Marshall stated in the House of Assembly: “We support this development. We have legislation.” In June of that year, the PCs lost another by-election and they were on their way to losing yet another when, in early November, they announced a moratorium on fracking proposals until an internal government review was conducted. In the most recent by-election, government reported that the internal review was “inconclusive”. I would like to see that report but there is nothing publicly available on the provincial government website.
Now, I am not naive enough to think that this sort of opportunistic politics is solely restricted to Newfoundland. But, what is distinct to our province is the “develop or perish” 1950s-era attitude displayed by the governing party. Their glacial slowness in recognizing the legitimate concerns of local residents and, worse yet, their systematic dismantling of the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves program reveal an ideology better suited to another, less enlightened age. (The reserves program is our best tool to conserve our natural areas.) It is not the same everywhere – our cousins in the Maritime provinces actually take conservation seriously and are not afraid to discuss the issues head on. Here are a few examples.
The Government of Nova Scotia convened an expert panel to investigate fracking in their province (outside of an election). Lead by the President of Cape Breton University, the panel held open consultations, collected submissions and consulted with experts on both sides of the issue. In August of this year, it released its final report, which called for more study and, more importantly, a recommendation to “design and recognize the test of a community permission…” In other words, they recognized that buy-in from local residents was absolutely essential for a fracking project to proceed – something I wholeheartedly agree with and something fracking proponents in Newfoundland have yet to achieve.
With respect to conservation of natural areas, in August 2013 the Government of Nova Scotia released yet another plan to protect large swaths of the province. The plan calls for the protection of 250,000 hectares of land in new provincial parks. This would raise the total amount of protected land in that province to about 13 per cent. That’s more than three times the percentage of land currently protected in our province.
Despite the PC’s committing to releasing a similar plan in Newfoundland and Labrador in the last two provincial elections, they have yet to do so. In fact, over the past 10 years they have only fully established one small protected area – an underachievement unparalleled in the western world.
Our cousins in New Brunswick are currently going through a provincial election. What surprises me is that conservation issues are front and center. To me, there is a distinct difference between desperately trying to squeeze a few more votes in a by-election to actually making conservation a platform issue. Take, for example, the New Brunswick Liberal party. Just a few days ago they released one of their central platforms to “better protect environmental health.” Besides centralizing conservation officers to improve environmental protection, they will ensure that “100 per cent of the Environmental Trust Fund goes to grassroots environmental projects.” If you’re scratching your head and wondering what an Environmental Trust Fund is, you’re not alone. As I’ve said before, our province is the only provincial jurisdiction in Canada that does not have a fund to support the work of grassroots environmental work. Indeed, given their track record I think the ruling PCs would be mortified at the thought of providing funds to “the enemy” (as it appears they perceive conservation groups).
So, while the Maritime provinces have been having an open and mature debate about conservation issues, and making real progress, what have we achieved here?
Worse than nothing.
Instead of moving forward, we’ve moved back. I believe these are the darkest days for conservation in Newfoundland and Labrador in generations. Here’s a partial list of damage done by the current PC administration, all of which I’ve written about in this column:
• Conservation officers laid off
• Key biologists laid off
• Reserve managers at Cape St. Mary’s and Witless Bay Ecological Reserves laid off
• Destruction of the Provincial Park interpretation program (e.g. guided hike and campfire staff laid off)
• Refusal to establish the Little Grand Lake Ecological Reserve (14 years in the waiting)
• Refusal to move forward on the promised Eagle River Waterway Park in Labrador
• Refusal to draft and release a provincial protected areas strategy, the only province in Canada without one
• Except for a parking lot sized reserve, no new protected areas in 10 years
• The absence of any provincial funding for conservation groups, the only province in Canada without such a fund
• The astonishing decision to send Parks Canada packing when they wanted to pay for and complete a feasibility study on a marine park
• Until recently, the dissolution of the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council, which was made inactive for years because of a lack of reappointments
If that list doesn’t illustrate their anti-conservation ideology, I don’t know what does. Here’s a prediction: with a provincial election within a year, the PCs will make a token effort to address one or two of the issues I list above so they can say they’re concerned about conservation. Don’t be fooled. Instead, I suggest you look west to the Maritimes to see how conservation should be discussed in an election and judge the parties accordingly.
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