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Tieleman: Blowback for environmental groups supporting Liberal leadership candidates

Five BC environmental groups have learned a harsh lesson about politics - be careful who you get in bed with.

The groups - working as part of "Organizing For Change British Columbia" - recently emailed supporters to suggest that they join the BC Liberal Party before the February 4 cut off date in order to vote in the February 26 leadership contest that will choose the province's next premier.

The idea was that these new members could tip the balance of votes in favour of the most environmentally-conscious candidate - hard as that is to believe for some who have studied the BC Liberal government's atrocious record.

But regardless of your analysis, yesterday it backfired badly as a leading BC Liberal candidate came out strongly in favour of proceeding with the controversial Prosperity Mine in northern BC - a project even the federal Stephen Harper Conservative government rejected in an environmental assessment as too damaging to allow.

And the Prosperity Mine has been vociferously fought by First Nations and environmental organizations - including some who urged members to join up with the BC Liberals.

Christy Clark pulled no punches in a story by Ian Bailey in yesterday's Globe and Mail newspaper - saying it is only "common sense" that the Taseko Mines-owned project environmental assessment be overturned - and that view will go ahead full steam ahead if she becomes premier.

"I think the Prosperity Mine needs to move ahead, not just for the thousands of jobs that would be created over the years in the Williams Lake area, but as a signal to investors across the world that British Columbia is open for investment, and if you want to tell people not to come the Prosperity Mine is a pretty big signpost telling them we don't really want investment here. We have to change that," Clark told Bailey.

Ouch! Jobs trump environment again?

And that follows similar comments late last year from fellow BC Liberal leadership candidate Kevin Falcon, who told the Prince George Citizen's Gordon Hoekstra that while the environmental concerns were important, the federal government had not properly weighed the economic benefits.

Falcon said he wants the Prosperity Mine's status put back in front of the federal government.

Falcon and Clark's views are totally at odds with environmentalists, of course, who condemned the provincial approval of the project and hailed the federal rejection.

"The big difference in this case is, the federal panel was arm's length from the government, it's more transparent, and more likely to result in findings of environmental impacts," Andrew Gage, acting executive director of West Coast Environmental Law - one of the five groups pushing BC Liberal memberships - told the Vancouver Sun's Larry Pynn in November 2010. Ecojustice, another of the five, also denounced the province for approving the mine.

Yesterday the Sierra Club - a member of Organizing for Change but not a participant in the BC Liberal membership strategy - released a scathing news release denouncing Christy Clark.

"Sierra Club BC is dismayed by BC Liberal leadership candidate Christy Clark's statement that one of her top priorities is to reverse Ottawa's decision to reject the proposed Fish Lake gold and copper mine near Williams Lake," the release reads.

"British Columbians are deeply attached to our wilderness areas and understand that we cannot build an enduring and strong economy by further endangering our water and wildlife," said Sierra Club BC Executive Director George Heyman.

"Fish Lake (Teztan Biny) has significant importance to the Tsilhqot'in First Nation in terms of their traditional culture, rights and title. Their concerns are swept aside by Ms. Clark's ill-advised support for the 'Prosperity' mine proposal, which was soundly rejected by the federal government," Heyman says.

"Ms. Clark was part of the BC Liberal government which gutted our provincial environmental assessment process a decade ago. Their jobs-at-any-cost approach led to provincial approval of a lake-destroying mine", concludes Heyman, who admitted considering a run at the BC NDP leadership but decided against it.

The federal government environmental panel did indeed soundly thrash the mine proposal that Clark and Falcon love.

The mine, the federal panel wrote: "Would result in significant adverse environmental effects on fish and fish habitat, on navigation, on the current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes by First Nations and on cultural heritage, and on certain potential or established Aboriginal rights or title."

The Prosperity Mine "in combination with past, present and reasonably foreseeable future projects would result in a significant adverse cumulative effect on grizzly bears in the South Chilcotin region and on fish and fish habitat."

The original idea of swaying the BC Liberals in favour of the environment, as outlined in an email from Lisa Matthaus of Organizing for Change and obtained by Public Eye Online's Sean Holman, is below:

If you received this message, you live in a provincial riding with very few Liberal Party members, probably less than 400.

If the BC Liberals change their voting rules, as expected, a vote for leader in your riding will likely carry at least 5 times more weight than one in a riding with 2000 members. Enough people are receiving this email to carry the vote in most of your ridings

If you want a Premier who is going to feel compelled to respond to environmental issues, now is the time to get involved.

But you have to act quickly. The cut-off date for people to join the BC Liberal Party and be eligible to vote for leader - who will immediately be the new Premier - is February 4th, this Friday. [Note: the cut-off date for the BC NDP leadership vote is now past.]

Conservation Voters of BC has all of the information you need to make sure you are part of this crucial decision. Keep in mind that taking action on this unprecedented opportunity now does not determine the vote you will cast in the next provincial election, which isn't scheduled to happen until 2013. Party memberships can be cancelled at any time. But it will likely determine who is running for Premier.

Organizing for Change has been encouraging environmentally-minded British Columbians to make their voices heard in both current leadership races. We will also be publishing responses from all leadership candidates - Liberals and NDP - to a series of environmental questions that have been sent to them.

Make the environment a determining issue for BC's new political leaders!

This alert is part of a series of action alerts from members of Organizing for Change, an effort of BC's leading conservation groups working to protect the health of the people, land, air, water and wildlife of British Columbia.

Together we identify environmental priorities that we present to government as opportunities for them to demonstrate their environmental leadership. We are partnering with Conservation Voters of BC on this e-alert; CVBC is a separate, volunteer-run organization that works to elect environmental champions in BC.

Organizing for Change members participating in this special B.C. leadership message:

Dogwood Initiative

Ecojustice

Georgia Strait Alliance

West Coast Environmental Law

Wildsight

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

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