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Island Voices: Victoria councillor ignores voters and common sense

Elected officials have a duty to consider every reasonable idea that comes their way.
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Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt’s stand on climate change ignores his own city staff’s legal and cost analysis, according to Stewart Muir of the Resource Works organization. Muir also contends that lawsuits against oil companies are a feel-good PR exercise about winning points with voters that will stall climate-change action for years. It also ignores that they rely on oil and gas to operate their cities.

Elected officials have a duty to consider every reasonable idea that comes their way. However, when one of those ideas doesn’t stand up to consideration and everyone else is dropping it in favour of another tack, those politicians have an equal duty to let it go.

At September’s Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting, the annual convention of municipal mayors and councillors, these leaders delivered a three-part win for the cause of common sense: First, the idea of suing fuel companies was soundly rejected. Secondly, a motion from Port Moody calling on the B.C. government to enact legislation expediting climate lawsuits was defeated. Thirdly, Victoria withdrew a motion calling for a class-action lawsuit by B.C. municipalities.

Instead, by a two-to-one margin, B.C. elected municipal officials approved a motion from Interior towns and cities stating climate lawsuits are “an inappropriate direction for B.C. communities” and calling for a collaborative approach to the very real challenges of climate change.

Practicality and good sense won the day.

And yet, Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt isn’t letting it go.

Afterward, in media, Isitt blamed the decision on the “division between major cities in southeastern B.C. and smaller municipalities in the interior of the province.”

Such words only sow dissent and create division where we need unity, while conveniently ignoring the fact many urban politicians voted against the climate litigation motions and the defeat was decisive.

He then announced law firm Arvay Finlay is working to prepare yet another legal opinion to support local governments considering such lawsuits in an effort to “[recover] a portion of costs incurred in relation to climate change.”

This ignores his own city staff’s legal and cost analysis of the option. We have undertaken several freedom-of-information requests of municipal governments considering these lawsuits, and in one found a letter from Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps to Toronto city Coun. Mike Layton, stating: “We’ve received some legal advice and cost estimates in camera and safe to say it is a big battle!”

Mayor Helps was once a proponent of trying to sue energy firms, but dropped the idea after receiving legal opinions and hearing from local businesses. When the facts came in, she changed course.

We asked for the Victoria staff reports referenced in the email, but were turned down. However, we did receive staff reports from cities such as Richmond and Burnaby, which reveal municipal staff are telling councils lawsuits are uncertain, will take many years to come to a conclusion, and will be expensive (for taxpayers).

Importantly, such lawsuits are also divisive, preventing the parties involved from working together for years at a time as legal actions drag out. At the very time when collaborating on a response to climate change has never been more critical, Isitt wants to launch legal action that makes collaboration impossible.

Launching lawsuits against oil and gas companies will do nothing to take on climate change. It is a feel-good PR exercise about winning points with voters that will stall climate-change action for years. It also ignores that they rely on oil and gas to operate their cities.

Victoria has fleets of vehicles and countless services that rely on the very fuels Isett wants to sue over. The capital region’s $800-million wastewater-treatment project is only possible because its power system will be backed up by natural gas — a cleaner-burning, reliable fuel that will allow the system to make our waters cleaner for the next 100 years or more.

Our oil and gas companies remain vital to Canada’s economy and social fabric — they literally fuel our lives. And, Canada’s energy companies are among the world’s most innovative when it comes to green technologies. By way of example, oil sands companies have cut emissions from their extraction processes by 30 per cent in the last 10 years alone, and are aiming to get even lower.

Instead of lawsuits, we need our leaders from both the public and private sectors to gather together and inspire creative solutions. The challenge of our times will require solving environmental, social and governance problems at every level of government and in collaboration with industry. Lawsuits that drag on for decades, at unknown cost to local ratepayers, are not a viable path. Only the lawyers come out ahead.

It’s encouraging to see British Columbia’s civic leaders recognizing this by embracing a more positive pathway to change. Most of them, at least.

Stewart Muir is executive director of Resource Works and a resident of Victoria. Resource Works says it “communicates with British Columbians about the importance of the province’s resource sectors to their personal well-being.”