In the 1970s when my family settled on Passage Island, the industrial age was coming to an end in Howe Sound. Brittania mine had just closed leaving behind a daily discharge of heavy metals that formed a plume far into Howe Sound while Woodfibre pulp mill would continue spewing it’s fetid sulphur oxides and volatile organic compounds into the air until it finally closed in 2006.
Fast-forwarding 45 years and now a Bowen Islander, I am reflecting on the changes that millions of dollars of taxpayer investment has brought to our fragile ecosystem. Howe Sound today supports a population of humpback, killer and grey whales, pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins, spawning salmon and herring. Meanwhile, a parade of vessels passes by my window daily: tugs with sawdust barges, log booms, container ships, fishing boats, ferries, sailboats and kayaks.
Suddenly, we are in the closing weeks of the environmental review for the Woodfibre LNG facility, a project that poses substantial ecological and safety risks already widely covered in the press. I am trying to imagine how things will change in the event that the 13,000 large vessel movements in Howe Sound each year are augmented by 100 to 360 sailings of LNG tankers. What exactly are the advantages to our community for shouldering the risks?
The proponent’s public relations materials identify jobs, royalties, and tax revenues as benefits, yet are suspiciously silent regarding whether those outcomes will directly translate into jobs and revenues here at ground zero. The creation of 100 permanent jobs is estimated for the Woodfibre LNG facility. This is an impressively small number of jobs for a region with a population of 2.8 million. Worse, even the most optimistic advocates make no promises those jobs will be for locals and not filled by temporary foreign workers as happened at the Tumbler Ridge coal mine.
The literature also estimates 650 skilled jobs will be needed to develop the project but since it will be entirely assembled in South Korea, that won’t constitute a significant economic benefit to our region. The notion that Woodfibre LNG will be designed and built by Canadian engineers, scientists, contractors and technicians may very well be a figment of wishful optimism: there is no guarantee or even suggestion that the preponderance of jobs for this project will be local.
We need our Provincial and Municipal governments to demand that Howe Sound development is ecologically and socially benign while also giving us a fair economic return for the risks we are encumbering. Purely by the numbers, every dollar invested in recreation, fisheries, arts, and tourism produces a higher percentage of real, local jobs than that same investment in resource extraction. According to the 2012 British Columbia Financial & Economic Review, the biggest employers in our province are :
• construction (205,000 jobs),
• manufacturing (164,000 jobs)
• tourism (127,000 jobs)
• real estate & property development (121,000 jobs)
• technology (84,000 jobs).
By comparison, the entire mining, oil, and gas industry employs just 1% of the workforce, 67,000 jobs. Suggesting that 100 jobs is significant in face of the risks involved is downright insulting and holds high potential to stifle the developing sustainable industries in this picturesque corridor. The influx of indirect jobs would be welcome, but they will come with the launch of any new investment in Howe Sound: an art museum, a real estate development, or a new gondola. Some investments bring even greater returns – relatively small industries like film, produce much greater spillover employment in addition to decades of future tourism sparked by iconic franchises such as Rocky, the X-Files, and Twilight.
Howe Sound’s watersheds provide an estimated $800 million to $4.7 billion in natural services to the region each year, according to a report released by the David Suzuki Foundation. Compare this to the LNG proponents’ optimistic estimate of $80 million in tax revenues to be spread across three levels of government. That number is pocket change compared to Vancouver’s $1.5 billion budget and tinier still when divided by three levels of government and divided again for all the Howe Sound communities. That is, if we even see the money in the first place given that Woodfbre LNG owner Sukanto Tanoto has a well-documented history of fraud and tax evasion.
The resource industry is notoriously volatile, requiring long-term investments in infrastructure to sell to markets that fluctuate rapidly.Is an unpredictable one-trick pony what we need for our local economy?
According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC is producing 40% more natural gas than a decade ago while receiving 2/3 less in revenues. After negotiations, the provincial government reduced its Royalty to just 0.5% of net profits, a number that will easily be manipulated through Sukanto Tanoto’s shell companies. Our provincial government has capped LNG property tax and there is provision for the carbon taxes to be forgiven. Once taxpayers pay for indirect and collateral costs of skilled labour training, safety response drills, ecological monitoring, site clean up and mitigation; will we see any nettax benefits at all? Unlikely.
It is time to develop a comprehensive use and protection plan for Howe Sound, and Bowen Island needs to be part of the solution. We need to be strong voices advocating for a plan that will feature safety, sustainability, and economic resilience. The economic and human health of Metro Vancouver’s growing metropolis depends on balancing the effects of activity in our forests, waterways, and hillsides. Woodfibre LNG poses so many obvious risks while offering meager benefits. I urge Bowen Islanders to take an active stand to protect Howe Sound and our community’s future.