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D'Avignon: British Columbians support resource exports (Vancouver Sun)

British Columbians, as well as potential investors, are too frequently confronted by headlines declaring B.C., and Metro Vancouver more specifically, are paralyzed by conflict over natural resource exports with supposedly profound opposition to development among a majority of citizens.

Is this really the case?

Research conducted by the Mustel Group and highlighted recently in The Vancouver Sun found that in reality, a solid majority of Vancouver residents understand the importance of Vancouver’s port to the British Columbia economy and significant majorities also support the export of all major categories of the province’s resource exports, from grain to forest products to natural gas and yes, coal.

What we see from this research and other data is compelling. There is strong public support for the export of natural resource products from B.C. and Western Canada to jurisdictions around the world.

However, when we dig a little deeper, we see there is also a desire among most British Columbians to ensure our natural resource development is “world class.” Ensuring that resource development meets this test is an issue we should take notice of. While more can be done, the rest of the world (accurately) regards our forestry, mining, agri-food and energy industries as leaders in environmental stewardship and innovative best practices.

Several of B.C.’s major resource firms consistently rank in the Top 100 of the most sustainable companies in the world based on independent research. This isn’t easy to achieve, but clearly points to the regulatory, academic and corporate strengths in operational excellence in British Columbia and Canada, expertise that is now exported around the world.

This more optimistic picture of where the public sits casts doubt on some of the recent headlines and also begs the question of what can be done to change the false narrative declaring that B.C. is a conflict-ridden province that rejects development opportunities on a far too regular basis.

The first point is to recognize that for the most citizens, opposing natural resource development is not primarily about stopping development; it is about doing it well. It is a largely false contrast to suggest B.C. is a place of unique anti-development sentiment. The vast majority of people want unbiased facts, civil dialogue and ultimately significant economic development that supports and builds stronger families and communities. To this point, it is worth noting that even in recent debates regarding new mines and oil and gas development, the core debate centres around ensuring environmental objectives can be met along with the economic opportunities.

The second point is that we need to find ways that better reflect citizens’ views. Dialogues that cater to extremes miss the mark, from both an outcome and a process perspective. Therein lies the opportunity for B.C. to change the narrative. There is a much stronger resonance with British Columbians when our resource development processes are focused on “how can we?” rather than “why should we?”

In this regard, the provincial government is making progress. Both the five conditions B.C. has set for additional West Coast oil pipeline access and the province’s LNG development framework appear to strike the right cord with most British Columbians.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of some recent municipal opposition to natural resource exports and infrastructure projects. Done well, our natural resource and infrastructure development opportunities can be a key part of accelerating the knowledge-based economy and leveraging strengths that are complementary, not adversarial.

While it is naive to believe conflict will not be part of B.C.’s vibrant political and civic culture, the data and the analysis point to a different natural resource dialogue than the ones that often seem to dominate the headlines in the Lower Mainland.

If British Columbia is to translate its economic assets into growing incomes and increased employment, more must be done to make our resource development pathways better attuned to public sentiment in a way that supports the responsible development of our natural resources.

Greg D’Avignon is president and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia.

As posted online by the Vancouver Sun