Liberals Send the Bill to Nature

Why you didn't hear the word 'environment' in B.C.'s brown budget.

By Tim Howard 23 Feb 2004 |
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B.C.'s new budget attracted a lot of attention, and the descriptions of the budget's impact were numerous and varied - it's a turning point, it doesn't make up for past cuts, it attracts investment, it penalizes the poor and so on.  But one thing you didn't hear in all the clamour, was the word "environment".

That's because the Liberals left the environment right out of the budget.

Usually the budget speech at least gives a nod to the environment, in recognition of the importance B.C. residents place on the protection of our natural heritage. But Minister Collins didn't even bother this time around, aside from proclaiming that B.C.'s healthy environment is part of our "spirit of 2010".  A review of the budget documents spells out why he ducked the issue; with budget cuts and further subsidies to industry, this budget is coloured a deep shade of brown.

Steep cuts to key ministries

Let's start with the funding for the key ministries that manage and protect our natural resources.  Compared against the budget estimates for 2001/02 when the Liberals came into power, the 2004/05 budget has the Ministry of Forests losing 37 percent of its budget and 30 percent of its staff, the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management losing 48 percent of its budget and 50 percent of its staff, and the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection losing 9 percent of its budget and 29 percent of its staff. And that's after several years of belt tightening under the NDP.

The allocation of the few funds available also follows questionable priorities. Seven times more money is devoted in the Ministry of Energy and Mines budget to Executive and Support Services, than to the development of policies and programs to support alternative energy sources and energy conservation and efficiency. And more money in Water, Land and Air Protection is devoted to Executive and Support Services, than to managing and protecting our extensive park system.

Where's fire fighting, water funding?

In case you've bought the line that money is being focused on rigorous monitoring and enforcement, think again. The Ministry of Forests compliance and enforcement budget is down 10 percent from last year, and is only 50 percent of the budget for, you guessed it, Executive and Support Services. Heck, they've even cut the fire fighting budget by $10 million, after the worst fire season on record for a long time.

What about drinking water protection, something the Liberals claim to be addressing through the new Drinking Water Protection Act?  This budget offers no money targeted to the protection of drinking water, no funding for the promised "Drinking Water Protection Officers", and no new money for the required watershed planning and risk assessment so essential to protecting drinking water at its source.

On the other hand, the Liberals are quick to point out their support for the industrial sectors our malnourished ministries are supposed to be regulating. They're pouring millions into the oil and gas sector through royalty credits for developing more difficult to access gas reserves, and directly subsidizing road construction.  And they're putting $17 million over three years into promoting offshore oil and gas development.

Alberta, Alaska know better

But the biggest environmental problem with this budget is the opportunities it misses.  Like giving the alternative energy sector the kind of direct incentives and subsidies offered to the oil and gas sector. In a changing energy economy where greenhouse gas emissions are going to carry an ever-increasing price tag, hitching our economic cart to the fossil fuel industry is just plain bad planning.

Another bright idea missing from the budget is a special investment fund to save some of those bonanza revenues from oil and gas development.  Some day soon the gas is going to be gone, and then what happens to the now bustling towns of B.C.'s northeast?  Smarter jurisdictions like Norway, Alaska and even Alberta have invested a portion of their oil and gas revenues to fund economic and community transition when the fossil fuels run out.  It would be wise for B.C. to do the same.

The Walkerton Commission report concluded that budget cuts and staff reductions under the Harris government clearly contributed to the fatal outbreak of waterborne disease, and we don't need a commission of inquiry to prove that protecting our environment makes good social and economic sense. Unfortunately, this government seems to need the kind of wake up call that Walkerton gave Ontario, before it puts some resources back into environmental protection.

Tim Howard is a staff lawyer with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.

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