Anyone who doubts the need for regulatory oversight of business need look no further than the devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Last April, a blowout at a deep-sea BP well in the gulf killed 11 people and injured 17 others. Oil poured out of the breach for three months, killing wildlife, damaging habitat and crippling tourism and fishing industries.
In all, about 4.9 million barrels of oil poured into the gulf. It will take decades, perhaps centuries, for the region to fully recover.
This week, a commission appointed by the White House to investigate the disaster said that the system designed to regulate drilling and oilfield safety was “entirely unprepared.”
The commission offered a plan to expand drilling regulations and establish an independent safety agency to help prevent such future environmental and human tragedy.
The commission co-chair, Bill Reilly, called the disaster “inevitable” because of the woeful lack of oversight.
The BP catastrophe should be viewed as cautionary in many places around the world where the pursuit of natural resources — and immense profit — is often at odds with safety and environmental stewardship.
Certainly, Albertans should regard the BP tragedy as a morality tale, as rich in — and dependent on — resources as we are.
There are more than a few opportunities in this province to put the cautions to the test.
This week, provincial Finance Minister Ted Morton gave us one. Morton, an outdoorsman who previously held the Sustainable Resource Development portfolio, publicly objected to hasty approval of a mining proposal near the Crowsnest Pass.
The Micrex magnetite mine in the Livingstone Range of the Eastern Slopes would provide heavy magnetic iron ore used for coal upgrading and steel production.
Critics say the mine will disrupt wildlife — bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk and moose — and disturb habitat.
A plan to use water in the processing has been abandoned because of concerns about watershed damage.
Morton wants the government’s proposed land-use plan in place before approval is granted for the Micrex project.
That land-use plan was first released to the public two years ago, but is as many as six years away from final approval, according to Sustainable Resource Development Minister Mel Knight. Knight says the province can’t afford to delay projects while it works on the framework.
For businesses, regulatory hoops are a huge headache — and can be an even larger expense.
This week, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) released a report card of regulatory reforms by Canada’s federal and provincial governments. It gives Alberta an F, an obvious failing grade.
“After years of foot-dragging, it’s time for our government to step up and launch a major new initiative to cut the burden of red tape on small business” said CFIB Alberta director Richard Truscott.
The association’s prime target is red tape that slows entrepreneurial initiative.
And certainly we should not handicap economy-building initiative — but that does not mean that initiative can be allowed occur to the detriment of the public or the environment. The best crafted rules exist for a reason, and deal with issues with clarity and reasonable haste.
But the CFIB perspective, if somewhat narrow, is instructive. In general, businesses — and Albertans — are suspicious and frustrated by regulatory hurdles, many of which seem arbitrary and pointless. The CFIB wants to help its members succeed, creating jobs and wealth.
And that’s part of the reason why the province is working to establish a land-use plan that would oversee development and environmental protection: so that a clear, consistent and practical set of rules exist that could be applied to all applications for the use of potential resource lands.
Morton thinks any approval without the framework in place would be “premature.”
He’s right. Environmental protection should always demand full scrutiny, under the most stringent of regulations.
And the economic impetus for the project seems questionable. Micrex says it will only operate the mine three months a year, which doesn’t seem to suggest a robust market for its product.
Economic forecasters, including BMO’s most recent Provincial Monitor report, say Alberta’s energy sector has turned the corner. Above-average growth is expected to resume this year.
In an economic climate that now seems more assured, why is the province in such a rush to approve projects that hold questions?
And with a heightened sense of the value of careful government oversight, why would we hasten either approval of a project or the crafting of half-baked regulations?
Never has it been more apparent that we need quality regulation of business. And never has it been more apparent that we need to take care that the regulation is not frivolous.
Take the time to get it right.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.