George Heyman and John Horgan need to go all-in on oil spill engagement

Martyn Brown
Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman and Premier John Horgan haven't launched a substantial public-information campaign to carry forward the fight for B.C.’s environment.

 March 1st, 2018 

“Notley okays latest B.C. move but warns of pipeline disorder” blared the headline in the Calgary Herald.

After spending weeks hammering British Columbia with an unlawful wine war, full-page attack ads, and a Twitter campaign of Trumpian proportions, Alberta premier Rachel Notley has “okayed” B.C.’s announcement on its “next steps to defend B.C.’s land, coast and waters from oil spills”.

That included a 41-page “intentions paper outlining policy concepts government is considering to ensure effective spill management across the province”.

How very reassuring.

Notley is apparently content to “let” B.C. carry on with its regulatory review, now that Premier John Horgan has dropped the contentious “point five” from the original consultation plan, pending a referral to the courts on its constitutionality.

I worry that there is a good reason Rachel Notley is smiling.

And that reason is this: the announced outreach process is not really aimed at broadly engaging British Columbians at all in that enterprise, “using every legal tool in the government toolbox”, as it were.

Rather, it seems aimed at minimizing the political battle on Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline project and at pacifying Albertans and Big Oil as far as possible.

Don’t get me wrong. The intentions paper is very good. The direction it reflects and the enhanced regulatory measures it contemplates are all terrific and long overdue. They will strengthen the regulations on spill preparedness that the Horgan government introduced last fall,

The constitutional reference testing the limits of B.C.’s capacity to regulate on increased diluted bitumen transportation is also entirely appropriate. As I have previously argued, if smartly framed, it may well succeed to an extent that few are now imagining.

I applaud Horgan and Environment and Climate Strategy Minister George Heyman for their leadership on this file, including their ongoing legal challenge at the Federal Court of Appeal.

The problem is, it seems the Horgan administration really has no appetite for doing what is necessary to build broad-based political support for its laudable efforts to reduce the risks of heavy oil spills, including from Kinder Morgan.

Not just in B.C., but across Canada.

There is no planned public-information campaign from what I can tell.

There is no opportunity at all envisioned for public consultation, beyond a backroom outreach element aimed only at “stakeholders”.

The website explains the process:

“As part of the engagement process, the Ministry will hold regional meetings with First Nations throughout March, April and May 2018, as well as establish working groups comprised of members from interested and impacted agencies and organizations.

“There is also a public input phase. The online engagement will be open from February 28 to April 30, 2018 at 4:00 PM.

“You can participate in the following ways:

  1. Read the Intentions Paper
  2. Complete the online questionnaire
  3. Email your written submission to before April 30, 2018. Written submissions will not be posted online but a list of organizations and individuals who submitted will be included in the final ‘What We Heard Report’.

“All feedback will be summarized into a public ‘What We Heard’ report that will be posted to this site in summer 2018. New spill regulations are anticipated in 2019.”

That’s it.

Sorry, but that’s not good enough. Not by a long shot.

You can read a rather technical “intentions paper”, if you are already literate on the subject.

But there is no information on the “engagement” site to inform average British Columbians about the perceived weaknesses in the existing regime, or about the environmental risks and health and safety hazards associated with the transportation of diluted bitumen.

There is not even a direct link on the site to the ministry’s own Spill Response Engagement Materials, dry and technical as they are. The lack of educational materials is glaring and inexcusable.

Opaque process falls short of auditor general's recommendations

The government’s questionnaire is of limited utility. It is as loaded and lopsided as its equally stacked survey was on proportional representation, in that pathetic engagement process.

For example, it doesn’t even ask about the need for a new shared decision-making authority to govern heavy oil spill management, in full partnership with Indigenous peoples.

You can also email your views to government if you are so inclined.

But don’t expect any transparency. Those written submissions “will not be posted online” for anyone but the minister and the bureaucrats to see.

They won’t be published to help inform the public. They won’t be shared to help shape and foster a broader public debate on the government’s oil spill prevention and response regime, in the context of the Trans Mountain project.

Instead, those written submissions will only be cited in a list of submitters in the government’s final “What We Heard Report”. They will only be used to essentially validate its findings and recommendations, whether or not they are reflective of the broad spectrum of public input and suggestions that were actually offered.

It’s called “managing the engagement process”.

When are we going to wise up, British Columbia?

A decade ago the auditor general addressed this issue in a report entitled Public Participation: Principles and Best Practices for British Columbia.

Among other things, it said this [emphasis added]:

“When invited, the public are more likely to get involved in public participation when the process is face-to-face, and when they are able to speak directly with the government officials responsible for the pending decision or with those who are seen to be expert in their field.

“Discussions with these officials are seen as an important way to influence decision-making. Generally, citizens are not likely to participate when the only means of participation is through the Internet.

“There is a significant difference between 'stakeholder group' and 'public' participation. We found that governments consider reaching out to the general public to participate in decision-making to be a risky exercise.

“Two reasons cited were the potentially higher costs of providing a fair and comprehensive public process, and that interaction with the wider electorate may produce unforeseen political consequences, beyond the decision-makers’ mandate. This may explain why governments have been reluctant to more fully embrace public participation.”


If the government was serious about consulting British Columbians on this issue, it would not restrict “engagement” to a passive process that “lets” people answer a questionnaire and send in an email via the Internet. And even then, only to the extent they are even aware that such an avenue for feedback exists and that their views are welcome.

Graphic images tell story of diluted bitumen

Here’s what should immediately happen.

Instead of letting Notley frame the public debate and British Columbians’ understanding of this issue, Horgan needs to make his case in public.

He needs to ramp up public communications efforts with a full-blown public-information campaign, to let people know what is at stake from the risks of increased bitumen transportation and to directly engage all citizens in a public debate.

The government has a whopping advertising budget. It should use some of that to communicate with British Columbians via television, radio, print, and social media to invite them into the “engagement” process.

People need to see pictures of heavy oil spills, of the damage they cause, and of the threat they pose to the Burrard Inlet, to the Salish Sea, to our terrestrial habitats.

They need to be reminded of the living reality of what is at stake, including to the endangered lives and ecosystems that strengthened regulations might help to avoid or minimize.

People need to see simple, graphic information about the rules and steps that have already been taken to govern oil spill prevention, response, clean-up, remediation, and compensation.

They need to be directly informed about how the Kinder Morgan project that was approved by the Trudeau government might aggravate those threats to our environment, to our coastal economy, and to Indigenous peoples’ rights and title.

And also, about how the conditions for approval that were imposed on that project, federally and provincially, purport to address those concerns.

People need to get the “Coles notes” version of the “intentions paper”, through a paid media campaign that reflects that initiative’s true importance to British Columbia.

Alberta and the Trudeau government need to be shown in no uncertain terms that, far from retreating into the shadows of backrooms and courtrooms on this issue, the Horgan government is intent on actually elevating its importance to British Columbians.

The government should backstop that initiative with a major public consultation effort, aimed at building literacy about its intentions on strengthening oil spill protection.

There should be a real consultation effort, with face-to-face dialogue that was entirely frustrated by the flawed NEB process that is now subject to a major court challenge for its failings.

Instead of hiding behind a digital wall that few will want to scale in registering their concerns, the province should be asking as many citizens as possible for their feedback on the proposed regulatory regime—in person and in writing.

It should publish all of those written submissions, as quickly as possible, to help drive that public discourse.

The government should be taking a lead role in educating the public on why this issue is so important. It should be broadly communicating how its proposes to act, in accordance its constitutional authority, to stand up for B.C.’s legal rights. To better regulate the transportation of heavy oil across its land and marine environments.

The Hansard television network could be an important educational tool in that regard.

It should be activated when the House is not sitting, as it was years ago, back when “open cabinet” meetings were broadcast and streamed live.

Horgan should use that forum to hold public-information symposiums and to broadcast presentations on each of the five areas originally identified for public engagement.

Quit apologizing for protecting Super Natural B.C.

The government also needs to stop being so damned defensive.

It should not be the slightest bit apologetic about its outreach efforts to environmental organizations, First Nations, and other groups that are also passionate about the Kinder Morgan project.

They are political allies and should be warmly embraced as such, not shunned as embarrassing pariahs, as the B.C. Liberals would like to see.

Honest to God, is the government seriously going to allow Postmedia columnists and reporters to bully ministers like Heyman, or Agriculture Minister Lana Popham into meek submission?

Why? Because they dared to even meet with environmentalists, listen to experts on salmon health, or stand up as they should for conservation and for the rights of Indigenous peoples?

It is bad enough that those journalists’ corporate paymasters are formally in bed with Big Oil through their revenue “partnerships”.

The answer to their pious and self-interested attacks on the government’s progressive actions to protect the public interest and the environment is surely not to avoid or minimize more public debate on this issue. 

On the contrary, it is to double-down on those efforts, with all the tools of power that government affords.

It is to fully embrace public engagement and public-information campaigns, to win not only the current legal battle, but also the political and public relations battle. For in the final analysis, that is at least as material to winning the war at hand.

That includes being openly and aggressively supportive of citizens’ rights of political engagement, within the rule of law.

It includes standing up proudly for the crucial role that legitimate acts of civil disobedience have historically played in driving needed political change. Usually, in the face of opposition from embattled political leaders who, like Justin Trudeau, placed their lot with their political benefactors.

So it is today.

Real public engagement does not shy from such conflict, be it in town halls, public consultation forums, or nonviolent, democratic protests that obliges decision-makers to listen with new urgency.

Pundits' employers are already compromised

Let the mainstream media chortle all it wants about environmental strategy groups that seek to organize legal protests under “hives” and “swarms” that hope to publicly communicate their opposition to the Kinder Morgan project.

Let the B.C. Liberals revel in their “leaked” memos and emails.

Let the gallery “gotcha” pundits and reporters gleefully wield those missives in trying to discredit the NDP’s “activist” ministers who actually speak for people like me.

They are at least leaders who have the courage of their convictions and who passionately care about our oceans, wildlife, atmosphere, and ecosystems.

They are cabinet ministers who actually care about reconciliation and about honouring the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

They are the best type of elected representatives: those who are not content to sit by as their predecessors have and do nothing, because some scribes wish they would just clam up, “play nice”, and let the failed world that was continue on its way to hell.

They are leaders of the first order—people like B.C. Green party Leader Andrew Weaver—whose lifelong commitment to climate action in opposition to Big Oil is as clear as this long piece he wrote in detailing his opposition to LNG. Read it. Please.

They speak for me.

I support their efforts, for which they have nothing to apologize. Least of all because they offend the sensitivities of partisans and pundits who view this as all a great game.

It’s not.

It is a political war of many battles that all beg for more honest and fulsome public engagement, not less of it.

It is a political war that won’t be won by half-assed Internet “engagement” activities. Which few citizens will even know are underway and that fewer still will care to engage.

Not unless they are properly informed, politically motivated, and actively consulted.

Heyman and Horgan should act now to marshal all their tools of public engagement at their disposal, including a substantial public-information campaign and a genuine consultation program, to carry the fight for B.C.’s environment as far as their leadership will allow.

This is no time for half measures. The dark net is no solution to the dire threats posed by increased transportation of unrefined tarsands oil.

Managing real public dialogue away is not the answer. We need government to reach out and to engage as never before, face-to-face in public forums, and through every available medium.

Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at

[Photo caption: Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman and Premier John Horgan haven't launched a substantial public-information campaign to carry forward the fight for B.C.’s environment.]