Conservative Government Celebrates Earth Day By Removing Habitat Protections For Humpback Whales

The title of this post is a bit tongue in cheek, but could the timing be worse?

Stephen Harper's cabinet, in its quest to significantly diminish legal hurdles for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, has quietly removed legal protection for Humpback whales and their critical habitat, by taking them off the "threatened" animals list under the Species At Risk Act (SARA). The changes, which were made despite opposition from a majority of academics, conservation groups and First Nations who were sent consultation letters on the proposed de-listing, were published in the Canadian Gazette over Easter weekend and became public today (April 22), which also happens to be Earth Day.

The de-listing appears to be in direct response to a Federal Court ruling earlier this year that found Ottawa had missed mandatory deadlines to release plans for Humpback whale habitat protection. At the time of her ruling, Justice Anne Mactavish said the government's failure could have an impact on approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline. Rather than protecting the whales' critical habitat, Ottawa has, to quote the Canadian Press, "changed the rules."

The de-listing, which will be viewed as an attack on whales and the environment by First Nations, conservation groups and the general public, is the clearest sign to date that Stephen Harper is going for broke in attempting to force the Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia, despite steadfast and widespread opposition from First Nations and the general public.

At a time when government relations with First Nations are already inflamed over backdoor changes (since rescinded) to environmental legislation in BC (witness the recent ejection of BC government officials from a liquified natural gas conference), the Harper government's decision on Humpback whales is completely tone deaf, and threatens not only the social license for the Northern Gateway pipeline (which frankly appears beyond salvage given its recent rejection by the community that had the most to gain from it materially), but also threatens to impede other resource projects in Northern BC and elsewhere.

The Harper government's move to delist Humpback whales is one more in a pattern of poor decisions that have undermined Mr. Harper's own "responsible resource development" agenda. As the Toronto Star's Les Whittington notes, "...watching these energy debates unfold, many observers have concluded the federal government and industry failed to anticipate the depth of opposition to new oil pipelines and completely mishandled attempts to seek aboriginal co-operation on Northern Gateway."

In uncharacteristically candid commentary, TD Bank chief economist Craig Alexander is frank about the mishandling of pipeline development (all the more significant as TD is a major investor in oil sands projects and infrastructure): "The energy companies made a fundamental mistake. They felt that selling the public on these projects was going to be far easier than it actually turned out to be. There were mistakes made about how to get buy-in from the public and from some governments on the merits of these projects. And they may not have fully incorporated some of the environmental issues into their planning process.”

Does the Harper cabinet's decision to delist Humpback whales help get buy-in from the public? Does it signal that environmental issues are an important part of the planning process? Or does it reveal a self-defeating impatience and aggression that undermines trust and goodwill with key publics?

"The Harper government appears to have been impatient with a range of issues around the creation of energy megaprojects. It has streamlined approval processes, narrowed the qualifications for intervenors in regulatory hearings and given the federal cabinet the final say on approving construction. Among environmentalists, then natural resources minister Joe Oliver’s 2012 suggestion that greens were trying to “hijack” the regulatory process to achieve their “radical ideological agenda” is seen as a spark that contributed to the explosion of opposition to West Coast pipelines and more oil tankers."

British Columbians, and Canadians need to decide how far they will let Mr. Harper's wanton approach to resource development harm future prospects for harmonious resource development and partnerships with First Nations and other communities in Northern BC and elsewhere that are truly responsible, sustainable and supported by local communities. We will have a chance to make that decision in the next federal election scheduled for October 2015.