Rumours about forthcoming federal environmental assessment changes abound

April 19th, 2012 by Laura Bowman

On April 17, Joe Oliver, federal Minister of Natural Resources made announcements and gave interviews about the fate of Canada’s beleaguered federal environmental assessment law, the Canadian Environmental Assessment ActNo specific amendments have been provided, so it is difficult to understand exactly what the government is proposing to do.

What we do know is that the federal government is probably going to take further steps to reduce the number of federal environmental assessments (for more on this see our Fisheries Act amendment blog post ) as well as impose timelines.  Timelines are not new, as one year deadlines were put forward in regulations published in the Canada Gazette last year for comprehensive studies (or full environmental assessments).  If Mr. Oliver’s comments are accurate, further amendments will subject hearings to a two year timeline.

According to some sources, the federal government plans to eliminate any environmental assessment that does not have “national implications”.  This change could leave hundreds of projects un‑assessed as provincial legislation varies. There are also rumours that the government will eliminate public participation in hearings (also called review panels), limiting participation only to those who are “directly affected” by the project.  The latter would align the federal process with that in Alberta, which is highly restrictive and excludes environmental groups and nearby residents.

If these changes are made, the already dysfunctional federal environmental assessment process will be left in shambles.  Since the Conservatives took over, a series of amendments have trickled in, with astounding randomness, through budget bills starting with the 2010 federal budget.   Even the latest amendments appear to bear little connection to the review of federal assessment legislation which was just completed.  Nowhere is there any meaningful vision presented for how future environmental assessments will look or work or how the amendments fit in.  This is a wrecking ball approach.

Canadians responded to deep and divisive conflict over resources by enacting environmental assessment legislation in the mid‑1990s.  Without any semblance of process to buy into, we will likely revert back to the bad old days of politically charged and deeply divisive tensions and conflicts.  It seems foolhardy to discard the relative truce between big development and environmental groups that these processes foster by privileging science over strife.  It will not benefit the environment, investors, business or the federal government.

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