VANCOUVER — Following Premier Christy Clark’s opening address at the Association for Mineral Exploration British Columbia’s (AME BC) annual Roundup conference, The Northern Miner's staff writer, Matthew Keevil, had a chance to sit down with Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett for a discussion on the B.C. Jobs Plan and general state of the industry in the province.
Matthew Keevil: Let’s start with the B.C. Jobs Plan because it’s quite topical this week. I'd like to get your opinion on how the plan is progressing and what sort of challenges have come up in the two or so years since it was put into action.
Minister Bill Bennett: Well the federal government [is one of those challenges]. You know, I think we need Taseko Mines’ (TSX: TKO, NYSE-MKT: TGB) New Prosperity project. It's one of the major mining projects we thought would be one of our achievements in terms of the jobs plan. But we're in pretty good shape with Mount Milligan, New Afton, and Red Chris.
The other big one is the Roman project in northeastern B.C. I think it's important to note just how much of a catch a company like Anglo American (LON: AAL) is for the province. We have to appreciate when companies on that scale decide to invest with us. You also have Copper Mountain Mining (TSX: CUM) operating near Princeton, and Barkerville Gold Mines’ (TSXV: BGM) Bonanza Ledge project.
MK: Speaking of New Prosperity it seems like the B.C. government has recently taken a more overtly supportive stance on the project. Was that decision a notable shift in policy? What exactly went into the recent uptick in lobbying efforts?
BB: It's probably my own personal style that is a little more aggressive I guess. It's my job to achieve the goals that relate to mining and energy, as well as the jobs plan. If I really believed that the New Prosperity project could not be built without a significant risk of contaminating Fish Lake the name of the project would not even pass my lips. But it's counter-intuitive to believe it can't be built in a way to protect Fish Lake.
It's really perplexing to try and understand how the federal panel came to the conclusion they did. We have many open-pit copper-gold mines in this province. We know how to do it and we do it on a regular basis. It's frustrating because the federal government is responsible for fish and waters, and we're responsible for the rest of it. I think there's disconnect between the federal government and British Columbia.
MK: Interesting you mention a "disconnect" between B.C. and the federal government. Could you elaborate a bit on that considering you've recently been out in Toronto meeting with federal representatives?
BB: I don't necessarily think that disconnect is at the political level. I've had great meetings with the Ministers and Members of Parliament. I mean I think they respect what we're trying to do here in B.C., and I actually have the impression they'd like to approve [New Prosperity]. I think where a disconnect exists is with the federal bureaucracy.
Listen, you send a bunch of people out here from Ottawa and they end up with a recommendation that you can't build this mine without contaminating a lake that's two kilometres away, well you say to yourself: "Where did that come from? How could you arrive at that conclusion?" That's the disconnect, and if they don't approve it I guess someday it'll end up in court and the judge can tell us what happened.
MK: In terms of New Prosperity there is some pretty substantial and vocal opposition. What would you say to those opponents?
BB: The vast majority of people who live in the Cariboo support it. I'm elected democratically into a democratic government, so for me to disregard the fact a majority supports it because there is vociferous and strong opposition from the First Nation, well I wouldn't be doing my job. And you know we're not always going to agree. I'd like it if we could always agree with the First Nations, but that's not going to be the case.
MK: And there's some pretty pertinent legal action going on with First Nation groups in regards to bigger projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. Do you think there's a legal reckoning or any sort of precedent upcoming?
BB: Northern Gateway is a federal project and I don't think that it's a good indicator of the work that the B.C. government does with First Nations on provincial projects. I think we're largely successful, and we've learned over the past ten years that we have to work really hard with First Nations to have a respectful relationship. And they have to have an opportunity to benefit from projects that are on their traditional territories. We are there with them, and agree with that. We know they have aboriginal titles and rights. In regards to Northern Gateway, I think someone should really ask the federal government about that process.
MK: Shifting gears for a moment, there's been concern from the junior and exploration communities about the health of smaller companies and the state of more greenfield exploration. What is the provincial government looking at to support these groups?
BB: When you're in a period of time where it's uber competitive for investment capital your jurisdiction has to be more attractive than other jurisdictions. Announcing the continuation of the flow-through program is a piece of it, and as the Premier also mentioned during her address yesterday we'll continue to fund Geoscience B.C. I'd point out we're the only province in Canada that has a private-sector geoscience division.
We've also taken the key permit on the exploration side, namely the Notice of Work, and part of the jobs plan was to shorten up the turnaround time on that. We've succeeded in shortening the average time on that permit from 110 days to 55 days in 2013. I think that's an extraordinary accomplishment.
We're also doing additional work on permitting and our environmental assessment process because your relationship with the exploration industry in terms of how long it takes them to get through the permitting process is a key part of that competitiveness. So if we can have that advantage over Quebec and Ontario its more likely people bring those scarce investment dollars here.
MK: Another note I had from Premier Clark's speech was the need to cut the proverbial "red tape" around the permitting processes in the province. Is there a sense within the government of what could be adjusted in that regard?
BB: I think the short answer there is yes. We have multiple ministries involved in dealing with the mining and exploration industry, including: the Ministry of Environment; the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations; the Ministry of Energy and Mines; and the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations. Sometimes the fact there are four ministries involved adds to the time it takes to process permits.
We're actually looking at a way to stream line that decision making. What I would like to do is have the Ministry of Energy and Mines be the lead agency when it comes to dealing with mining because our staff knows the most about it. What I hear from the Ministry is that our staff — generally speaking — are really good. And that's especially true for our field staff in places like Smithers, Kamloops, Cranbrook, and Prince George. I'd like those people to really lead all the relationships we have with the mining industry. The other ministries can follow our lead in that regard.