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Trust and transparency in BC mining sector

UBC study proposes changes to the way government shares data

 

Last updated 4/8/2023 at 5:46am

A long straight stretch of two-lane highway in British Columbia.

Julia Basten

A road traveled by University of British Columbia School of Public Policy and Global Affairs graduate student Julia Basten during a 2022 visit into British Columbia's mining country.

British Columbia is expecting a surge of mining activity to meet the demands for green technology. The Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy, released in November 2022, outlines the federal government's goals to increase domestic production of critical minerals, and BC will experience a significant share of this growth. The provincial government must be prepared for the increased scrutiny of the sector.

According to a new University of British Columbia study, a revamp of how mining's risks and rewards are presented is required so the public can trust they have a complete picture of what's happening in the province.

Mining is already a major employer and source of revenue for BC. Nearly 40,000 people work in the sector, generating 4.5% of BC's gross domestic product.

Comparing BC info sharing

In the UBC study, public policy graduate students compared the information published online about mining from eight jurisdictions with that of BC's Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation. To identify good practices the province could adopt, the study focused on jurisdictions where the mining industry is of similar significance as it is in BC.

Open data, digitization, and accessibility are policy goals for all jurisdictions studied. In BC, the government aims to publicize as much information as possible. In the mining sector, this includes industry information received from mine sites and collected by government auditors. As a result, ministry employees spend a considerable amount of time ensuring they redact company-protected information and other sensitive information. This leaves limited resources to provide consistently updated economic or environmental indicators – information that the government should provide to foster greater public trust toward the industry.

What Queensland does well

Information provided in Queensland, Australia, stood out as particularly accessible to a variety of audiences. The state's mining websites are easy to navigate, up-to-date, and effectively balance general and comprehensive information. It has also successfully grouped seven separate systems into one Open Data Portal for mining information.

The student researchers conducted interviews in Queensland with experts in government, industry, academia, non-government organizations, and professionals working in mining communities. They found that public trust in the state benefits from prioritizing:

The latest information, which is consistently updated;

Local information, particularly about environmental impact (risks, mitigation and timelines) and economic indicators (jobs and revenue promised and actualized);

Individual and community health, including air and water quality and safety on mine sites; and,

Communicating with language accessible to a range of audiences, providing content for people with only mobile phone access and limited internet connectivity.

In Queensland's mining communities, local authorities are able to better plan and communicate change to residents when they are provided with localized information about mining.

The study found that partnerships between government and industry were essential to facilitate information sharing. The Geological Survey of Queensland, for example, is working with mining companies to streamline reporting, including a set of vocabulary, for easier input and interpretation by government regulators and researchers. Government websites also include guides for the public on how to navigate digital portals with the common vocabulary.

Less time spent to input and aggregate data means more time for regulators to provide accessible summaries for the public. This is particularly important for remote and indigenous communities, where mobile phones are the predominant source of internet connectivity, limiting the ability to use heavy GIS and cloud-based portals.

Trusting the information

With the number of communities affected by mining activity set to grow in British Columbia, the government must improve how they communicate developments in the sector. Growth of the industry will lead to a surge of information emerging from the various mine sites across the province.

Human resources within the government, however, are already stretched thin, maintaining the status quo. This suggests a change of strategy is needed.

Four UBC graduate students taking selfie during research trip to Australia.

David Deen

Jackson Porreca, Julia Basten, Nehal Gupta, and David Deen during a visit to Brisbane, Australia, to interview government, academia, NGO, and mining industry experts.

The current range of mining information provided on BC's websites effectively describes the regulatory process and general information about the mining life cycle, but they fall short in meeting the varied needs among the public.

Queensland offers transferable lessons for the province to streamline communication flows between industry and government, so the public has access to information they can rely on.

Up-to-date information which prioritizes mine-adjacent communities has the greatest correlation to trust and transparency. This includes information about both the risks and benefits of development and communicating when plans are not realized.

About the authors: Julia Basten, David Deen, Nehal Gupta, and Jackson Porreca are graduate students at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Their full report is expected to be made public in May 2023.

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