The irony about environmental opposition to natural resource development projects in the B.C. Interior, including controversial proposals like the Northern Gateway pipeline and the New Prosperity mine, is that the global effects are often overlooked.
Stopping Enbridge and Taseko from going ahead with their developments is seen in the simplistic terms as either it will happen or it won't happen, yet the proper way to see these projects is will it happen here or will it happen somewhere else.
The global demand for minerals and petroleum products will continue, regardless of whether Northern Gateway, the numerous mine proposals and Premier Christy Clark's ambitious liquefied natural gas goals are realized. From an economic standpoint, British Columbia can choose to benefit from having its natural resources in the marketplace (and helping Alberta move its resources to market) or it can stay on the sidelines and let the financial rewards go elsewhere.
But the effect is more than economic.
Pipelines will be built and mines will be opened and operated, if not in B.C. and not in Canada, then elsewhere. For some people, that's exactly what they want. The not-in-my-backyard sentiment applies not only to natural resource development but any kind of development that impacts their view of the trees and the sky and their enjoyment of nature in its full splendor. When it comes to putting gas in their car, turning on their furnace on a cold spring morning and having the components to operate their household electronics, they're quite happy to import those goods from elsewhere and ignore the cost of their blissful ignorance.
For people who truly care about the environment, it's not enough to say build mines or pipelines somewhere else, because they understand that the pollution and other negative effects from these operations will still occur. Furthermore, they realize that those facilities will be built and operated in countries with much less regard to environmental damage. From a purely pragmatic sense, with no mention of economic benefit, wouldn't it make more sense to build Northern Gateway in our own backyard, where we can make sure it's built and operated at the highest standards than have it go somewhere else, where much less care will be taken to lessen the risk of severe environmental damage?
The resource extraction work done by multinational companies in many parts of the world is exploitive, both to the environment and to the neighbouring residents. As Steve Coll documents in his book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, North American companies aren't expected to meet North American standards of environmental protection and social licence when it comes to their international operations. The level of corruption, exploitation and environmental harm is often horrific in Third World Countries but when it's on the other side of the globe, far from regulatory oversight and tree-hugging do-gooders, it's easier for residents of North American and Europe to justify morally.
The financial and material wealth of Northern B.C. and Canada allows residents to question whether these projects should go ahead or not. Most other parts of the world aren't so rich or so fortunate, nor do their inhabitants have so much political power, to be able to decide what goes ahead and what doesn't. In those countries, the government tells its residents what's happening without any consultation of area residents and there is no obligation on the part of the multinational corporate developer to hire local people and companies, invest in community initiatives, operate in a safe and environmentally sensitive manner and clean up the mess left behind when the resource is gone.
When it comes to resource projects, Northern B.C. really can have it both ways. It can create jobs and receive economic benefits from operations that meet the highest standards in safety and environmental stewardship. Those standards, and the expertise that comes with them, can then be exported to other countries. If we want to be a global leader in that area, we have to be in the game rather than on the sidelines.
That means saying yes and then setting an example the world can follow.