October 10, 2012
The provincial government’s Open Information website promotes “no closed doors or hidden agendas,” but in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request filed in May 2012 for basic background information regarding one of the most significant rural electrification projects in the province’s history, all they released were 76 blank pages. That apparent lack of transparency has prompted the ELC to file an appeal today with the Information Commissioner on behalf of the conservation organization Rivers Without Borders (RWB). “We think this is a blatant disregard of a request for information that the public has a right to know,” says Tadzio Richards, Conservation Campaigner with Rivers Without Borders. “We have lodged a complaint with BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner.” Construction of phase one of the mammoth $561 million Northwest Transmission Line (NTL) from Terrace to Bob Quinn Lake began this spring. However, whether, how and when a controversial extension of the line 100 km further north will be built remains uncertain. If built, the extension will dramatically escalate resource development in the region. The federal government kicked in $130 million from the Green Infrastructure Fund for phase one of the NTL project on the condition that the BC government take responsibility for building the extension. The stated rationale for this arrangement was that the extension would provide clean (non-diesel) electricity to two small First Nations communities. However, according to the Pembina Institute, if mining and development activity facilitated by the extension is factored in, the net effect of the extension would dramatically increase the amount of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the project. British Columbia was required to submit its plans for the extension project by June 30, 2012 under the federal-provincial funding agreement. Six weeks before this deadline, the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) filed an FOI on behalf of Rivers Without Borders to confirm whether these plans exist, and if the province intends to do an environmental assessment of the extension project. Over a hundred days later, the BC government responded by providing a document consisting of 76 blank pages, along with five emails that were almost completely redacted. “In building the transmission line, BC has promised to connect northern communities to the grid in exchange for millions in federal funding,” says Richards. “So far, the BC government has provided no evidence that they will fulfill their green obligations. This power line looks like it is being built for mines rather than communities.” The government’s response in this case is consistent with what FOI advocates have complained is a broader trend toward secrecy and non-disclosure, particularly where Cabinet documents or politically sensitive information or deliberations are involved. “British Columbians need to be reassured that their provincial government respects its obligations under BC’s freedom of information laws, and that it is committed to a transparent process for the evaluation of the very significant environmental impacts associated with the NTL extension in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and cumulative effects,” says Chris Tollefson, ELC Executive Director. “To date, the governments record on this file provides little confidence on either front.” On behalf of Rivers Without Borders, the ELC is requesting the Information Commissioner review the response, arguing the government has misinterpreted its obligations under BC’s FOI legislation and, as a result, has withheld information it is legally required to disclose.