Critics distressed over Tories' plans to change environmental review process
Amidst rising concerns around climate change and the controversial review of the Northern Gateway pipeline, the government’s proposed changes to Environmental Assessment legislation have many critics up in arms.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) is just one of several pieces of legislation up for review this year, along with proposed changes to the Criminal Code, immigration laws and the Copyright Act. So far, the suggested changes to Environmental Assessment legislation have been slammed by the Opposition, who say Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are “gutting” the system with detrimental budget cuts and time limitations on reviews.
The Act, which has been in effect since 1995, was created to promote sustainable development by subjecting new projects to an environmental review process that includes both scientific research and public engagement.
The latest review of CEAA policy was originally intended to take place in 2010, but the Standing Committee appointed to conduct it didn’t begin the review until October 2011.
While details of possible legislation changes have yet to be made public, officials like Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver have hinted at some of the things they’d like to see changed. In November, the Globe and Mail reported on Ottawa’s impending “overhaul” of the review process, noting the Conservatives’ focus on pushing energy projects through in a timelier manner.
“We need to make the regulatory process more predictable, more timely, less duplicative," Oliver said at the time. "We respect the integrity of the regulatory process but we do need to get these projects approved."
Later, as public hearings began regarding the Enbridge Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline, Oliver reiterated the need to streamline lengthy reviews—in part to prevent “radical” environmentalists from “hijacking” the process.
At a town hall meeting last week, Liberal MP Joyce Murray voiced her opinions on the Harper government’s proposed amendments.
“I’m very concerned about the CEAA review, frankly. I did sit in a few of the Standing Parliamentary Committee meetings that gave me the impression that the Conservative members were under particular marching orders to elicit comments that were already pre-scripted,” said Murray.
“Some of the questioning from the Conservative side was about [attempts] to take environmental assessment out of the hands of CEAA and the Environment Ministry and put it in the hands of the regulators of those industries. I think that’s the wrong way to go.
“I’m concerned about a 50 per cent budget cut for CEAA, as well. And that’s in the current budget,” she said.
Murray also commented on the “strong push” to shorten review time frames.
“I think that’s appropriate if you’re giving the government bureaucracy some time limits so it doesn’t sit on someone’s desk,” she said.
However, she explained that such time limits could also have a negative impact on the process if participants don’t have sufficient time to complete research or lay down their concerns.
“Timelines are good, but not if they limit input,” she said.
A constant battle
Environmental Assessment legislation has evolved over the years to address a number of deficiencies, but like any law, there’s always another problem critics would like to see resolved. For instance, controversial amendments from 2010 “simplified” the EA process by making government development plans and public infrastructure projects exempt from assessment.
Environmental advocates and government critics condemned these changes, and they’re now worried that Conservatives’ concerns over the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel process will lead to even more harmful amendments.
John Bennett, Executive Director of Sierra Club Canada, has been a vocal critic about efforts to “streamline” environmental reviews. In his remarks to the Standing Committee from November 2011, he described recent decisions on environmental policy as part of a campaign to “marginalize and silence the voices of the environment in Canada”.
“I’m sure you will hear from industry that the process of environmental assessment is a great burden and needs ‘streamlining’. In my 30 years’ experience, ‘streamlining’ is code for weakening,” he said.
“The Act should be strengthened and the scope of assessment broadened. Canada has signed binding treaties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect biodiversity. Environmental assessment is critical to living up to our international commitments.”
As Northern Gateway review hearings continue across British Columbia and Alberta, issues around Environmental Assessment will continue to be top of mind throughout the coming months. With the Standing Committee’s review of EA processes still ongoing, it’s unclear when recommended amendments can be expected to appear.
In an email to the Observer, CEAA spokesperson Isabelle Perrault indicated that it is the Committee’s responsibility to determine the scope and timing of the review.
“The Committee is to submit a report on the review to Parliament, including a statement of any changes that the Committee recommends,” she said.
“Following the review, the Government will prepare a response to the Committee’s report, which could include proposals for changes to the legislation.”
PHOTO: Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel hearing in Smithers, B.C. (By Carrie Saxifrage)
New oilsands monitoring strategy not enough, say environmentalists Vancouver Observer, February 3, 2012