When BC moved mountains

Oscar Dewing compares the Coquihalla's creation with Trans Mountain's slow crawl to completion. What changed?

Last month, the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) dealt another blow to the Trans Mountain expansion project with more pauses and delays.

These days, it seems like regulatory slowdowns have made Canada incapable of building major projects in timeframes feasible for private-sector investment.

How times have changed.           

At one point, British Columbia was the land of sky-high pines and equally towering ambitions. This notion was made clear to me when I stumbled across an old video production documenting BC’s Coquihalla Highway project.

The Coquihalla's creation was a symphony of audacity, grit, and determination; a testament to the 1980s, when BC meant business.

This marvel of engineering, completed in a seemingly impossible three-year timespan, exemplifies BC's once-sterling capacity for swift, decisive action in infrastructure development. Workers and machines laid 160,000 tonnes of concrete and strung 26,000 tonnes of steel across 543 kilometres of rugged terrain.

Environmental foresight wasn’t lost in the rush. The building of the Coquihalla highway involved award-winning efforts in safeguarding ecosystems. This environmental conservation was meticulously planned and executed with the guidance of specialists in environmental and fisheries sciences, all while sticking to the three-year timeline, a green venture ahead of its time.

As an undergraduate student, I see in the Coquihalla the tale of a Canada that once was – a strong and capable behemoth that could surmount topographical and logistical peaks without compromising our environmental values, all while keeping to schedule.

The project bound coastal communities to the province's interior resulting in economic activity and prospects for both regions that are greater than the sum of their respective parts.

Fast forward a few decades and this can-do spirit seems to have stalled. The Coquihalla and Trans Mountain share the DNA of ambition for economic prosperity, yet their fates are tellingly divergent.

TMX has fallen victim to changing federal realities, becoming the mirror image of the Coquihalla – entangled in complications, spiralling costs and red tape with a completion line that keeps receding.

Where once BC's ambition cut through mountains, now it seems we can't even cut through red tape. The delays and objections dogging Trans Mountain are symptomatic of a broader paralysis. How did we get to this point?

Prime Minister Trudeau flipping pancakes. An analogy for the federal government’s “pancaking” of regulations. Photo from Canadian Press.

There’s a simple answer: federal government intervention.

Since the 1980s, the federal government has altered its approach, adopting a paternalistic stance that tends to view provincial governments as lacking competence. This has led to the feds frequently stepping in with a 'we know best' attitude, often undermining clearly enumerated provincial rights.

The issue at hand is not regulation, but the "pancaking" of it — layer upon layer of regulatory measures that interfere with provincial processes and have repelled investment needed for sustained growth.

Moreover, the current federal evaluation and oversight lacks clear, pre-determined, and scientific-based criteria — creating an atmosphere of uncertainty, making delays all but inevitable, and creating an environment that few investors wish to brave.

This is not to say that regulatory oversight is not needed. Indeed, there is value in ensuring robust environmental protections and balancing economic growth with conservation. However, provinces have proven that they are the better-placed regulator to deal with these processes both effectively and efficiently.

Projects such as the Coquihalla have demonstrated the value of local agencies within the review and oversight process. They understand the needs of local communities and ecological habitats, along with the nuances of regional natural resources and economies. This corporate knowledge allows for an efficient regulatory process that is tailored to the kinds of projects that occur there.

The Coquihalla project stands as a testament to a time when development and environmental stewardship were not seen as adversaries but as allies in progress. It challenges the modern narrative that robust environmental protections must invariably slow development to a crawl. Instead, it serves as a beacon, illuminating the possibility of achieving ambitious construction timelines while upholding environmental integrity—a feat that seems impossible in today's regulatory labyrinth.

The path forward is clear: by drawing on the lessons of the past and reinvigorating the regulatory process with clarity, scientific rigour, and local expertise, we can revitalize the Canadian infrastructure landscape.

While the Trans Mountain is nearing completion, Canada’s aging national energy infrastructure will require a lot more to be built. The current system cannot become the status quo. If national projects vital to kickstarting the economy and providing cleaner solutions are to succeed, we must start by rethinking the system and placing a bit more trust in the hands of more-than-capable provinces.

It’s time to allow provinces to take the lead in the oversight processes to the projects that resonate most with their unique industrial fabric, rather than being smothered by a one-size-fits-all federal blanket.

It’s time to build.

Oscar Dewing is a Policy Intern at Resource Works, currently studying Public Policy and Economics at St. Francis Xavier University.

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