After biodiversity bill controversy, environmental advocates give mixed review to new budget

Marla MacLeod, programs director for the Ecology Action Centre, says she's encouraged by some of the environmental investments in the 2021-2022 budget, but deeply discouraged by its spending commitments on fossil fuel initiatives. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

Environmental advocates in Nova Scotia are giving mixed reviews to the newly tabled provincial budget, which includes investments in both green programming and the fossil fuel industry.

Presented in the legislature on Thursday, the document includes more than $80 million in spending commitments on new and continuing climate-friendly initiatives, spread across several departments, including Environment and Climate Change, Energy and Mines and Transportation and Active Transit.

It also includes roughly $2 million for petroleum resources and $7 million for the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board.

“I saw those increases for climate programming, energy efficiency and that’s all very positive and great to see,” said Ecology Action Centre programs director Marla MacLeod.

“On the other hand, I’m still seeing spending on things like offshore petroleum exploration and natural gas. Those things I find concerning.”

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Robyn Tress, climate justice campaigner for the Council of Canadians, a non-profit that champions social justice, environmental protection and democracy, said the environmental investments are a “nice start.”

They include an additional $26 million for Green Fund programs, more than $16 million for infrastructure projects that help reduce climate-polluting greenhouse gas emissions, and $7.6 million for transportation options that help get cars off the road.

She too, however, was concerned by the funds allocated to petroleum.

“I would like to see it reflected in budgets that governments understand that the fossil fuel industry is sunsetting and that we need to plan a managed decline for that,” she told Global News. “I don’t see that in this budget.”

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Within the Energy and Mines Department, in addition to expenditures on fossil fuels, there are commitments of $2 million to sustainable and renewable energy and $53 million to clean growth and climate change.

The investments, however, come after a week of questions from environmental organizations about the premier’s resolve to climate action — a key component of his bid to lead the Nova Scotia Liberal Party.

On Tuesday, Rankin and Lands and Forestry Minister Chuck Porter proposed to strip key enforcement powers of their newly tabled Biodiversity Act by removing all biodiversity emergency orders, offences and fines, allowing the province to work with private landowners “in a voluntary fashion” to develop biodiversity management zones on their property.

If the amendments go forward after a law amendments committee meeting on Monday, the act would only apply to Crown lands unless private landowners opt in.

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Porter said at the time the decision was taken to encourage collaboration and build trust with landowners, and he did not expect it would gravely impact the effectiveness of the bill in preserving Nova Scotia’s ecosystems.

He also said it was not a reflection of Rankin’s commitment to the environment, nor was the government influenced by an online campaign sponsored by the forestry industry, which made false claims about the biodiversity bill’s potential impacts and encouraged landowners to oppose it in letters to MLAs.

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Despite this controversy and some concerns with the budget, MacLeod said “it’s too soon” to pass judgement on the Rankin government’s environmental resolve.

“He’s only been in the job a little over a month, however we’ve seen mixed (action) so far,” she said. “We were deeply disappointed with the gutting of the Biodiversity Act.”

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Thursday’s budget boasted the largest investments in long-term care and mental health and addictions in Nova Scotia’s history.

Asked why an investment of similar historical significance was not made in the climate change and environment portfolio, Rankin said climate action doesn’t necessarily require tremendous expense.

“Protecting more land for example, which is a significant commitment for me, doesn’t cost any more money,” he explained. “I’ve tried to also make the argument that there’s an economic benefit, so as we move towards renewable energy there’s actually cost savings now.”

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In recent weeks, Rankin has announced goals to make Nova Scotia the first net-zero province in Canada, along with electric vehicle and bicycle rebates, funds for home energy upgrades and more.

Lori Turnbull, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, said it’s fair to judge a premier based on the budget they present, but it may be prudent to consider that Rankin may not have been dealt “the fairest hand in politics.”

He’s in the midst of a global health crisis and has to call a provincial election by next spring.

“He’s dealing with a really short runway to do a lot of important things, when people are really focused on when am I getting my vaccine, what is happening to my business, what is happening to my savings,” Turnbull explained. “I think his challenge is to be able to take what he wants to do, and make it so he’s hitting the notes people want to hear.”

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