For many Canadians, 2015 will be remembered as a banner year for the environmental movement.
In the past three months, there was a new global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions and a new government in Ottawa that ordered a ministry revamp — it is now called Department of the Environment and Climate Change — to hammer home the point that Canada is serious about the challenges ahead.
The shift toward new environmental policies was evident in the 2015 federal election. In British Columbia, the share of the vote for the Conservative party fell drastically, from 45.5 per cent in 2011 to 30 per cent in 2015. A third of voters abandoned the former ruling party, four years after its majority mandate.
The analysis points to severe problems for the Tories in the two components of British Columbia where people tend to be more environmentally friendly. In Vancouver Island, they failed to win a single seat, even with former cabinet member John Duncan contesting in a newly drawn constituency. In Metro Vancouver, the Conservatives lost seven ridings they held (or would have, under the new boundaries) and now have just three seats: South Surrey-White Rock, Richmond Centre and Langley-Aldergrove.
It would not be fair to say that the environment was the reason for the defeat of Tory candidates in 2015. Other issues, including Bill C-51, the Senate scandal and a lacklustre campaign, are also to blame for the power shift in Ottawa. Still, B.C. is a province that, along with Quebec, understood the ramifications of climate change more quickly than Ontario, the Maritimes or the Prairies. In B.C., the environment is still a decisive factor in selecting candidates and platforms.
With this backdrop, 2016 is shaping up to be a year in which the intersection of the economy and the environment will have an enormous effect on policies. Two oil pipeline projects, the Enbridge Northern Gateway and the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain line, were regarded as extraordinarily important just three years ago. Now, they are no longer “top of mind,” as the provincial government has focused most of its efforts toward liquefied natural gas.
In July, Insights West found that most British Columbians (52 per cent) are opposed to the Northern Gateway, and a slightly smaller proportion (46 per cent) were against the expansion of the Trans Mountain line. Opposition to both projects reached 53 per cent mark in Metro Vancouver. With numbers like these, it makes perfect sense for Victoria to focus on LNG.
Still, the LNG file has been one of shifting promises, and the public has not forgotten government stating that “billions of dollars in new revenue will be dedicated to the B.C. Prosperity Fund.”
In December 2013, just six months after an electoral victory that many saw as an endorsement of a “can do” premier that was going to create jobs, only 35 per cent of British Columbians said the provincial government was doing a “bad job” in handling LNG. Two years later, after delays and a drop in international prices, the proportion has jumped to 47 per cent.
The public’s relationship with LNG has been tenuous at best. While half of British Columbians (50 per cent) support the government’s push for the development of LNG, only 26 per cent approve of hydraulic fracturing or fracking — the process through which much of the LNG is extracted — and an even smaller proportion (22 per cent) believe the industry will bring benefits to all B.C. residents.
In October, the perception of a federal government that was not being environmentally friendly became one reason for voters in our province to take a second look at other alternatives. The federal Liberals were the beneficiaries, taking their share of the vote from 13 per cent in 2011 to 35 per cent in 2015. This makes it even more important for Victoria to deliver results and discuss all aspects of LNG (including fracking) openly and honestly. Mixed messages, as the Conservatives found out, will not sway a public that is already skeptical.