It has been quite the year for Bill Bennett.
The Kootenay-East MLA has been active both in the riding and at the provincial and national level as he heads up the provincial Ministry of Energy and Mines and is involved with international negotiations for amendments to the Columbia River Treaty.
Bennett was a big part of the decision-making process that recently approved the construction of the Site C Dam and also complete a core review of provincial government operations in an effort to find more efficient ways of doing business.
But 2014 hasn’t been without it’s challenges for Bennett, which has primarily come from the fallout of the Mount Polley tailings dam disaster.
Bennett recently spoke with the Daily Townsman for a year-end interview to talk about the highs and lows of the last 12 months.
Starting off close to home in the Kootenay East riding, Bennett said he was excited to see construction get underway for the new ICU expansion at the East Kootenay Regional Hospital.
“The regional hospital here has been my number one priority since I was elected in 2001,” Bennett said. “We have spent already $50 million in it, in the new diagnostics area, the new rehab area and so fourth, so the ICU is the next logical step.
“Money was tight, so it was something that I’m proud of, as a local MLA, to get money from the government.”
Bennet also nodded to the core review—a project which he was in charge of for the last 18 months where he was tasked with finding efficiencies in government operations.
Out of that core review came changes to the Agricultural Land Commission decision-making process, which has been a sore point in the past for many East Kootenay residents, according to Bennett.
“We made it more accountable to the people who own the agricultural land. It was a very unaccountable organization since it’s inception,” Bennett said.
“… There are the regional panels that we have now created, we’ve got regional, local people making decisions instead of bureaucrats from Vancouver—they now have this different decision-making matrix where they are allowed to take into account first and foremost the quality of the agricultural land, that’s still number one and will always be number one, but secondly, all the criteria such as the economy and community interest.
“And we think with that broader criteria for decision making that we’re going to get fairer decision from the Kootenay panel, from all the panels across the province.”
Though it may not resonate much in the southeast corner of B.C., Bennett added that the construction approval for the Site C Dam is a monumental decision from the government.
As energy minister, Bennett was a big part of the decision-making process leading up to the project’s approval. The dam is expected to produce 1,100 megawatts of electricity that will be able to power 450,000 homes.
“It’s an $8.775 billion project, the biggest public sector project ever in British Columbia and the reason that I’m so proud of that is that this dam is going to provide cheap electricity to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” said Bennett. “It’s going to last for 100 years, just like these other major hydro-electric dams that we have on the Peace river and the Columbia river.
“It’s a very difficult and controversial decision, but sometimes it’s those difficult and controversial decisions that are the most important in politics. They’re the hardest ones to make but they give you the most satisfaction because you know that they’re right.
Bennett noted that there are roughly a dozen farms that will be flooded behind the dam once it is built, adding that approving the project in light of that was a tough call to make.
“But it’s a decision that’s in the best interest of the vast majority of British Columbians, and therefore, although it’s difficult to make it, it’s satisfying to be able to make decisions like that.”
On the topic of dams, Bennett is also the B.C. government representative for handling negotiations to the Columbia River Treaty. The treaty requires a 10-year notice for termination or amendments, the first available date of which passed earlier this year in September.
Bennett delivered a speech to an American crowd in Spokane in the fall where he told the audience that the U.S. enjoys more benefits from the treaty than the Canadian side.
The provincial government has reached out to their American counterparts with the goal of re-negotiating various aspects of treaty.
“Right now we’re waiting for the U.S. State Department to respond to B.C.’s statement that we would like to retain the treaty but we’d like to sit down with our U.S. friends and negotiate some improvements to it,” said Bennett. “…They are entitled to leave things the way they are. They don’t have to do anything or say anything; the treaty just carries on in it’s current form if that’s what they wish.”
As minister of energy and mines, Bennett has his finger on the pulse of the industry in B.C., which is a big contributor to the province’s economy.
“Mining is an important component of our jobs plan,” said Bennett. “I have to ensure that there are new mines opening up in B.C. We went through long periods in the 1990s where for every mine that opened, two closed. It was a difficult time, so we’ve recovered from that and we do have new mines opening.
“We’ve had five new mines open in the last three years, which is a very significant accomplishment.”
He noted that commodity prices are low in areas such as copper and gold, which makes it a difficult environment to encourage investment. That being said, there are always projects in the works in which companies target the next upswing in prices, he added.
“My job is to make sure that we are able to have a competitive permitting framework for those companies to do business in,” Bennett said. “If we are far more difficult, far more expensive, far more time-consuming than other jurisdictions—such as Manitoba, Quebec, Alberta and Ontario—we will lose investment to those jurisdictions.”
However, the 2014 year wasn’t without it’s challenges for Bennett and the Liberal government on the mining front, the biggest of which was the tailings pond breach at the Mount Polley mine.
“That’s a huge challenge both for me personally as the mines minister and for our government and it’s frankly a huge challenge for the mining industry, because the mining industry in B.C. has always held itself up as a very reliable, safe industry,” said Bennett.
“But this happened, and we can’t shrink from the fact that it happened, so we need these investigations to complete so we can understand how it happened and take whatever steps need to be taken to ensure it never happens again.”
While Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) is not in the Ministry of Energy and Mines portfolio, the development of the LNG industry are a vital part of the Liberal government’s economic platform moving forward. Controversial projects have been proposed in Kitimat and Prince Rupert, and proponents have been lukewarm to investment opportunities after the Liberal government released an LNG tax scheme.
“We have 18 different proponents in the province right now looking at specific developments,” said Bennett.
Though there may be people who doubt the viability of the industry now, Bennett said he believes people will be surprised by the LNG’s growth over the next two years.
“Each of these large LNG plants represents a minimum of $12 billion in investment in B.C.,” said Bennett, “and I think you’re going to see—I won’t say how many—but I think you’re going to see certainly more than one and less than 10, but you’re going to see significant investment decisions coming our way in the next two years.”
In addition to his cabinet position of mines minister, Bennett led a core review of the provincial government, which culminated a few weeks ago where $50 million was identified in savings by tweaking operations in ministries and crown agencies.
“I think probably more important than the money we found to save for the taxpayer, was that we found dozens of different ways that ministries and crown agencies can do business more effectively so that the budgets they have are being used in a way that gets more for the taxpayer,” said Bennett.
He cited the decision to collapse the Pacific Carbon Trust, which saved $4 million with the Ministry of Environment stepping in to cover the Trust’s responsibilities. He also found $2 million in savings by dissolving the Provincial Capital Commission, with the Ministry of Community Development stepping up take over the Commission’s role.
“My process was not strictly based on lets find savings and lets find ways to cut,” Bennett said. “My process was largely lets work with the ministries and agencies to find ways to do things smarter, let them keep using the budget they have, but more effectively.”