Fool’s Gold: Bidding the DNR Adieu & Paying Lobbyists

A CAPE BRETON SPECTATOR/HALIFAX EXAMINER SPECIAL INVESTIGATION

Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to Joan Baxter’s four-part series on the push for mines and quarries in Nova Scotia. (Read Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.)

 

Cabinet shuffle

Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is no more. On July 5, Premier Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government renamed it the Department of Lands and Forestry (not, however, Lands and Forests, something lamented by the insightful Facebook page devoted to Nova Scotia’s “Woods and Water”).

Iain Rankin

Iain Rankin

Timberlea-Prospect MLA Iain Rankin, formerly Minister of Environment, is now minister of the new Lands and Forestry department. The MLA for Hants East, Margaret Miller, who had been heading DNR, is once again Minister of Environment, as she was in 2016-17.

The cabinet shuffle and departmental shape-shifting also sees DNR’s geoscience and mines branch, which of late has been acting more like a cheerleader for industry than a regulator, move to the Department of Energy (henceforth Energy and Mines), with Derek Mombourquette, MLA for Sydney-Whitney Pier, the new minister.

Yesterday’s government press release detailing the changes contains a statement from Premier Stephen McNeil in which he tries to reassure us that these changes will allow government departments to do what is just about impossible: “sustainably” develop (a cynic might read this as “allow — even encourage — more extractive industries to exploit and export the resources from”) our lands and forests, at the same time that the departments are providing good stewardship of our forests, soil, water, and climate for future generations.

“Combining geoscience and mining with energy makes sense. It’s about taking a more cohesive approach to economic development opportunities, on land and offshore,” said McNeil, or whoever wrote the press release. “These changes will also ensure the forestry industry has a more dedicated departmental focus, which will help achieve the necessary balance between sustainably developing our lands and forests and protecting the environment.”

Margaret Miller

Margaret Miller

And, we are told, bringing these two teams of experts on our underground or under-sea natural resources together in the Department of Energy and Mines will “enhance economic development opportunities in the province.”

Whatever that really means.

It could mean a lot of worrisome things, given successive governments’ records on the environmental file, and a provincial habit of failing to hold large, foreign-owned industries accountable for human or environmental disasters, for which Nova Scotians wind up paying the price.

The current government is busy trying to attract still more extractive industries to Nova Scotia (as documented in this series), so it could mean we will be going all-out to open still more gold mines. Five open-pit mines are already planned for the Eastern Shore, and the government is promoting gold exploration in the watershed in northern Nova Scotia that supplies Tatamagouche with its drinking water.

What is sure is that with government employees whose main interest is sub-surface resources now gathered under one roof and working to promote mining and petroleum exploration, Nova Scotians will need to pay close attention to power-brokers working on behalf of those industries.

There are still lots of lobbyists and other proponents of fracking waiting in the wings, and one of those, MLA John Lohr, is vying for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party.

Derek Mombourquette

Derek Mombourquette

Under its executive director, Sean Kirby, the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS), with its who’s who list of industry backers, has been arguing for an end to the ban on uranium exploration and mining in Nova Scotia. Over the past year, Kirby, son of retired Liberal Senator Michael Kirby, has also been lobbying and campaigning hard to convince the province to allow for land swaps that would open up protected wilderness areas for mining and quarrying.

To its credit, so far the government has not given in to MANS on this.

So maybe there is room for optimism, especially if the cabinet and departmental changes are the first step towards ending the conflicts of interest that prevailed within the former DNR, which found itself trying to protect natural resources while promoting their exploitation.

Back in 2015, journalist Ralph Surette wrote in the Chronicle Herald that it was time to split up DNR and “put its agenda through the chipper.”

DNR, he wrote, was “not a department of government but of the pulp and lumber industry,” so it was hardly in a position to regulate the industry. According to Surette:

Before anything else can be dealt with, this department must be broken up, its wildlife pieces either farmed out to the Environment Department or split off in some other way. This was proposed by many through the long and ignored Natural Resources Review process.

Yesterday’s departmental shake-up hasn’t resolved that conflict of interest, and the Natural Resources Review of which Surette wrote is now history.

William Lahey

William Lahey

Instead, we now have the Independent Review of Forestry Practices led by William Lahey, president of the University of King’s College, a review that McNeil announced in August 2017. The Lahey review was originally due at the end of February 2018, but its release has been delayed while the report undergoes “further review by advisors in international law and forestry economics before it is finalized and submitted to Minister Miller and made available to the public.”

Because of yesterday’s musical chairs, when the Lahey report is finalized, it will be submitted not to Miller, but to Iain Rankin, now the minister of the new Department of Lands and Forestry. Whether Lahey will recommend more changes to the make-up of the department so it can better balance forest and wildlife conservation with forestry management and exploitation remains to be seen.

But since hope springs eternal in the dog days of summer, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it could be a good thing that the government geologists who are intent on promoting mining in the province — digging, drilling and blasting away all that sustains us on the surface (soil, vegetation, forests) to get at natural resources underground — have been moved out of the department that should be dedicated to conservation of resources and wildlife.

What is needed now is for the departments of Environment and of Lands and Forestry to be given both the clout and resources to keep the newly strengthened and energized Department of Energy and Mines — and potentially harmful extractive industries — in check.

Don’t hold your breath.

 

Publicly funded lobbyists

The provincial government — specifically the new Department of Energy and Mines under Minister Derek Mombourquette — recently handed out a round of grants totaling  $799,800. The money comes from the new Mineral Resources Development Fund (which of course means the citizens of Nova Scotia).

The 11 July 2018 government press release tells us:

Eighteen of the 28 grants are going to prospectors, many of which are one-person companies or junior exploration companies. Grants provide essential support for them to find mineral deposits and promote their projects to investors. Geology departments at Dalhousie, Memorial, Acadia and Saint Mary’s universities also received a portion of the approved grants. In addition to funding the research, the program links industry with innovative university researchers while providing training and support for the next generation of mineral deposit geologists.

Two exploration companies received a total of $147,000.

One is Transition Metals Corp. of Sudbury, Ontario, a “multi-commodity exploration company” that likes to find partners to whom it sells interests in exploration projects. It says it “leverages partner funding to advance projects” and lists several other mining companies that are key funding partners for its projects. Transition Metals seems to have lucked out in Nova Scotia, where it found the government willing to help fund its mineral exploration work in the Cape Breton Highlands.

Sean Kirby (CBC Photo)

Sean Kirby (CBC Photo)

The NovaRoc map of mineral claims in the province shows that Transition Metals has eight licenses straddling Victoria and Inverness Counties, just south of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park: six are for mineral exploration, one involves notification of a “drilling program” and another has been registered for “excavation.”

Another beneficiary of Nova Scotians’ beneficence is Chilean Metals, a “junior natural resource – mining” company that holds more than 20 exploration licenses along the Fundy Shore, from Bass River to Parrsboro. In June it began drilling on one of its leases near Gamble Lake, north of Bass River.

At the time, the two men doing the drilling, both from Quebec and working for a Quebec firm, told a local resident who asked them who was paying for the drilling, “You are.”

Given the news yesterday that the people of Nova Scotia gave Chilean Metals a grant of $95,000, it looks as if they knew what they were talking about.

But that’s not the best news for the mining industry in this province, which seems to have bent the government’s ear so far out of shape that Premier McNeil and his Liberal Party now really believe that we can mine our way to development in this province (as if we haven’t been extracting and exporting our natural resources for a very, very long time and have a $15.9 billion debt to show for it.)

The Department of Energy and Mines has also decided a worthy recipient of the Mineral Resources Development funding is the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS), headed by Sean Kirby, son of retired Liberal Senator Michael Kirby. Yesterday the people of Nova Scotia learned that they are giving MANS:

–       $62,000 for a project called “Minerals Play Fairway – Needs Assessment of Airborne Geophysical Data”

–       $30,200 for a project called “Industry Education Conference: Consultation and Safety”

–       $33,000 for a project called “Time Lapse Reclamation Video.”

So a tidy little gift from Nova Scotians of $125,200 to MANS.

I have no idea when governments decided it was wise or even ethical to use public money to fund industry lobby groups, which of course are only there to lobby governments for all sorts of favors that mostly don’t benefit citizens. But there it is: that day has arrived in Nova Scotia.

Photo by Joan Baxter

Photo by Joan Baxter

As for the people of northern Nova Scotia who are opposed to the government’s promotion of mineral exploration in the watershed that supplies Tatamagouche with its drinking water (see Part III of this series), their own government and $47,500 of their tax dollars are going to fund a project at Saint Mary’s University to develop “a genetic model and exploration criteria for a [sic] Epithermal-style Gold Mineralization in the Eastern Cobequid Highlands.”

I would very much like to be wrong about this, but I’ll wager this grant will result in a document that will justify (with lots of caveats about how much environmental monitoring and care will be taken, of course, even if it won’t) the decision of government geologists to forge ahead with their plans to promote gold exploration – and eventually gold mining – in the Cobequid Hills of northern Nova Scotia.

So the provincial government is funding private industry, an industry lobby group and academics whose work is likely in support of industry. While the concerned citizens of Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia (SuNNS) will have to continue to spend a great deal of their own unpaid time, energy and money to research the risks of mining and to promote more environmentally friendly and sustainable industries for local economic development.

 

Joan Baxter is a Nova Scotian journalist and award-winning author, who has researched and written extensively about extractive industries in several countries in Africa, where she lived and worked for three decades. Her latest book, The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest, recently won the Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing.

 

 

 

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