Caribou take brunt for money-losing coal mines, says report

Precious caribou habitat is being sacrificed for a trio of northeast B.C. coal mines that have had a history of falling short of delivering the economic impact they were purported to generate, say the authors of a report.

Entitled "Who Benefits from Caribou Decline," it was issued Thursday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning think tank.

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That resource development is the underlying cause of the trouble herds in the region are facing does not come as news for many, but the authors question whether the Willow Creek, Brule and Wolverine coal mines made financial sense in the first place.

"What we found is that the benefits haven't materialized in the way that they were promised, and in fact there are negative consequences and costs - that if you took everything into account, it's hard to say it's a win on the economic and financial side," co-author Robyn Allan said in an interview.

The authors looked at a 20-year period, from 1999 to 2019, and found that while $250 million in corporate taxes were predicted, taxes paid up to 2016 were net zero. Conuma bought the three mines out of receivership in 2016 and has since paid $86 million in taxes but the authors predict the revenue will be refunded back to the company because the mines have since been money losers.

The authors also made note of the Northeast Coal Project in the 1970s, a private-public partnership that developed the Quintette and Bullmoose mines, but yielded a loss of $2.8 billion in dollars adjusted for inflation.

As for the caribou, each of the projects may have passed an environmental assessment, but their cumulative impacts are a reason the species are facing complete erasure from the region, according to the report. Adding to the trouble, open-pit mines are often dug in the high-elevation range caribou prefer.

"Let's face it, you take the top off a mountain to go after metallurgical coal and it never goes back on," Allan said.

Going forward, the authors are calling for a moratorium on new mines and a review of policy surrounding the approval of the projects.

"One of the things we discovered is that the companies come forward and rely on models to make huge estimates of the benefits," Allan said. "They aren't scrutinized by the regulators, they're accepted. And then the regulators and the politicians use those projected benefits to leverage support from society to allow these projects to proceed.

"The second thing is these proponents are never held to account for their promises. There's no followup to see if, in fact, the narrative is supported. You could argue that they've been approved on false pretenses."

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