Habitat Banking: Good Corporate Citizenship or PR Spin?

Environment | BCBusiness
Sample Offset, Before and After: In conjunction with the opening of a third shipping berth at Deltaport in January 2010, Port Metro Vancouver restored a nearby salt marsh.

Port Metro Vancouver’s planned restoration of the Boundary Bay waterfront raises questions about whether green credits can be “banked” to apply against future habitat damage

Sometimes a company just can’t seem to get a break. Port Metro Vancouver has been facing public-relations headwinds lately in response to expansion plans at its Lower Mainland shipping terminals. It seemed to have a good-news story on its hands recently with the announcement that it was restoring a wetland habitat in Delta. But instead, last week the Port found itself once again facing a crowd of irate, placard-waving citizens.
The demonstration staged on September 3 centred around the Port’s planned restoration project in Delta’s Boundary Bay. Protesters at the site told reporters they believe the driftwood-littered waterfront is fine just the way it is, that the Port’s plan to remove the logs in order to restore a fish habitat would only destroy an important bird habitat.
The media attention faded with the close of the day’s news cycle, with no resolution in sight as to whether the Boundary Bay restoration project is necessary, or whether birds trump fish when it comes to habitat restoration. But the incident raised significant questions about a program the Port has dubbed “habitat banking.”
Port spokesperson Gord Ruffo told reporters at the scene of last week’s protest that the Boundary Bay project is part of a program whereby the Port plans to act proactively by “banking” environmental “credits” that can be “withdrawn” at a later date in compensation for habitat damage resulting from port expansion projects.
The analogy offered more questions than answers: Who authorized this offsetting program? Who measures the value of one habitat and evaluates the potential equivalency of another? Who monitors the ongoing viability of the restored habitat?
BCBusiness caught up with David Suzuki Foundation representative Jay Ritchlin to flesh out these questions more fully, and with Gord Ruffo, who heads the Port’s habitat banking program, in search of answers.
Ritchlin explains that the idea of offsetting the loss of one habitat with the restoration of another is not new. It’s common in the U.S., he says, but is often associated with the protection of endangered species, where it’s relatively easy to catalogue the needs of a species, and offset the loss of those specific habitat features in one place with their creation or restoration in another.
But effectively offsetting port infrastructure development would require a massive study of all the Lower Mainland’s marine habitats to determine how the port can continue to grow while at the same time maintaining functioning ecosystems, Ritchlin says. It should not be a matter of “Let’s pick some habitat here and let’s pick some habitat there and call it a bank.”
Ruffo counters that the Port’s offsetting program is not arbitrary, but is governed by regulatory requirements. “If you’re going to build a dock, you’re going to have to get various permits and approvals in place. If it’s an aquatic environment, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will be involved, and if you’re going to be destroying fish habitat they’re going to require that you offset that fish habitat with something else.”
The Port’s habitat banking program is not intended as a one-to-one compensation for lost habitat. “It’s a general inventory of habitat we’re creating,” Ruffo explains. “In general, any credits that we put in the bank, we don’t have a project they would be targeted for.”
People assumed, for example, that because of its close proximity to the proposed Roberts Bank container-terminal expansion, the Boundary Bay restoration project was meant as a direct offset, Ruffo says, but that’s not the case: “The Roberts Bank terminal expansion will undergo its own environmental assessment process. Any environmental impacts and any environmental offsetting will be done through regulators as part of a separate process.”
That container-terminal expansion is currently in the early stages of consultation and permitting. Once regulators determine the extent of the project’s environmental impact and the specific offsets that are required, “there could be something in the bank that the regulators agree, ‘Well yeah, those credits may apply to this,’” Ruffo says. If the DFO doesn’t find sufficient “credits” among the Port’s portfolio of restoration projects, it may deem further offsets are required, Ruffo explains.
Ritchlin commends the Port’s proactive approach, noting that restoring habitats several years prior to claiming them as “credit” gives researchers time to assess the success of the restoration and its ongoing viability. Nevertheless, he points out that studies of offsetting programs in other jurisdictions indicate that monitoring and maintenance of restored habitats rarely endure beyond short-term budget projections.
“A beach cleanup can look great, even for several years,” Ritchlin says. “But that really has little or nothing to do with whether or not it effectively creates habitat that offsets another habitat.
It will likely be another five to 10 years before regulators require offsets for projects currently on the drawing board, Ruffo says, and during that time the Port will be monitoring its restoration projects. (It has completed one small project on Tsawwassen First Nation land; the Boundary Bay project is underway and three more restoration projects are expected to get underway this fall.) “Some sites need more monitoring, but typically it’s annual monitoring up until the time it’s withdrawn from the bank. And we will monitor it for at least a year after that and maybe longer. It’s a mutual agreement with DFO.”
Ritchlin agrees that there’s value in the Port’s novel approach to “banking” environmental offsets, but remains unconvinced of the program’s ultimate efficacy: “It’s very interesting to do it ahead of time, and that’s worth something. It’s still a bit murky  whether it’s the right stuff.”