It will be easier to build pipelines on protected farm land in British Columbia if the government passes proposed changes to the law governing the Agricultural Land Reserve, and that may be exactly the government's intention, says conservationist Vicky Husband.
Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick, who this week brought forward an amended version of Bill 24, the Agricultural Land Commission Act, to the B.C. Legislature for second reading, said whether the bill will facilitate pipelines on farm land remains to be seen.
When The Tyee recently asked Letnick about the possibility, he said, "The bill is kind of an umbrella legislation."
The details of what will and won't be allowed will be determined in regulations that the provincial cabinet will decide on later. "The government has promised good consultation on the regulations that are to follow," said Letnick, adding he plans to spend August consulting on those regulations.
The question came up after Husband pointed out to The Tyee that in the last few years TransCanada had submitted documents to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Office for a pipeline that would have crossed land protected by the ALR.
The project descriptions for at least two proposed TransCanada pipeline projects -- the Coastal GasLink from west of Dawson Creek to near Kitimat and the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project from near Hudson's Hope to near Prince Rupert -- note they will cross ALR protected farmland. Project descriptions are preliminary documents submitted ahead of a detailed environmental assessment.
Clark's political capital invested
Both TransCanada projects would deliver gas for proposed liquefied natural gas plants that Premier Christy Clark and her government have promised and enthusiastically supported. Clark has been quoted saying she and her government have staked a large amount of political capital in building the industry in the province.
The Coastal GasLink document from 2012 acknowledges the project could damage soil. "The surface disturbance caused by pipeline construction has the potential to result in soil erosion," the submission said, noting it would "be addressed through soil handling measures to avoid soil loss or transport and maintain soil capability."
Both it and the 2013 Prince Rupert proposal say "The conceptual corridor crosses agricultural lands, including several areas that are designated as Agricultural Land Reserves (ALRs)." They also say "some compressor stations and metering facilities may be located on ALR lands."
"It's extremely serious," said Husband, adding pipelines degrade farmland. "It does have an impact. They're actually admitting it in their submission."
Bill 24, first introduced at the end of March, would divide the ALR into two zones. Energy Minister Bill Bennett, the MLA for Kootenay East, has been its strongest proponent, making it part of his core review of government services.
If the bill passes, decisions on what's allowed on protected farm land in the Kootenay, North and Interior regions would consider economic and social factors along with the protection of agriculture, though this week's amendments include one to ensure protecting farm land is the top priority.
Husband said Clark's government is undermining the ALR to support the natural gas industry. "This is the bombshell," she said. "They're not doing it for farmers."
Public distrusts government: Husband
According to the Agricultural Land Commission, which oversees the ALR, 95 per cent of the applications to remove land from the ALR come from people who aren't farmers, Husband said. The bill opens the door to oil and gas development in the north and to real estate development in the south, she said. "If it was about supporting farmers, you'd consult with them."
The consultation on the bill has been inadequate so far, said Husband, so Minister Letnick's assurance there will be consultation on further regulations is not reassuring.
"We don't trust that, do we?" she said, predicting the decisions will be made in secret. "I think there's a huge amount of public distrust with this government."
Former MLA Bob Simpson flagged the TransCanada project description for Husband. The legislation will make it easier to put pipelines through the ALR, but that's not saying much, he said. "It's not that hard for them to do it anyway," he said. "You can get this done now, but it does require you to go through the Agricultural Land Commission."
Letnick said the bill is not about supporting oil and gas development, but is intended to give farmers flexibility in parts of the province where agriculture is marginal. "The reason the legislation was brought in is to help farmers stay on the land," he said.
"A lot of the problem with farming land is there's nobody to farm it," he said. "People are going to places where they can make more money."
The goal is to find the right balance between preserving farmland and allowing for complementary uses that generate income, he said, giving the example of farmers building facilities to process cherries on their own property.
Leasing land to a pipeline company would be another way to generate income for farmers, but Letnick declined to say whether or not that's likely to be allowed by the regulations.
The NDP opposition is opposed to the bill and its MLAs are speaking against it in the legislature, farmers' groups have expressed concerns, and regional districts have passed motions asking for it to be withdrawn.
Letnick inherited the bill when he took over a few weeks ago from Pat Pimm, who stepped down for health reasons. He has said withdrawing the bill after consulting with stakeholders and the public would be possible, but last week said the government intends to plow ahead.
"The goal is still to have a bill pass by the end of the session," he said. The legislature is scheduled to sit just two more weeks before it recesses for the summer starting May 29.
Read more: BC Politics