The federal government is proposing to overhaul the way environmental assessments are conducted in Canada, aiming to reduce red tape, provide greater transparency and allow greater input from the public and Indigenous populations.
At the same time, Ottawa says it will replace the National Energy Board with a Calgary-based oversight body designed to respond to emerging energy developments that will make faster decisions guided by science and Indigenous knowledge.
Liberal cabinet ministers held news conferences in cities across the country on Thursday to roll out the long-promised environmental legislation.
“The legislation we are introducing today aims to restore public trust in how the federal government makes decisions about major projects like mines, pipelines, and hydro dams,” Environment Minister Catherine McKenna told a news conference in Ottawa. “These better rules are designed to protect our environment while improving investor confidence, strengthening our economy and creating good middle-class jobs.”
The new legislation, Ms. McKenna said, will make Canada’s energy and resource sectors more competitive. The $500-billion in major resource projects that are planned for Canada over the next decade will mean tens of thousands of jobs, she said.
The proposed environmental legislation will in many ways rewrite regulations that were loosened or eliminated under the previous Conservative government. Under then-prime minister Stephen Harper, the Tories repealed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in 2012 and replaced it with a regime that resulted in the cancellation of thousands of environmental reviews.
Ms. McKenna accused the Tories of having gutted environmental protections and eroding the public trust in how decisions are made, making it more difficult to get projects approved. “Weaker rules hurt our environment and our economy,” she said.
Bureaucrats told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa that an Impact Assessment Act will repeal the current Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the National Energy Board will be replaced by a new Canadian Energy Regulator.
The changes are aimed at broadening the reviews from standard environmental assessment to those that are focused on sustainability and take into consideration a broad range of potential outcomes including a project’s impact on health, society, Indigenous peoples, jobs and the economy over the long term.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency would be renamed the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada and would work with the provinces and territories to ensure “one project, one assessment,” a government official told reporters.
The reviews, which would include a gender-based analysis, would ensure that projects are consistent with Canada’s international commitments on climate change. And there will be more money for public participation, including that of Indigenous groups.
At the same time, the government is promising that the reviews will be more predictable and efficient and will give companies enhanced clarity. The proposed new law stipulates that assessments of major projects must be completed withing two years while those that are not subject to the Impact Assessment act must be done within 300 days, down from the 450 days that are currently allowed.
One of the primary aims of the regulatory overhaul is to give more say to the Indigenous people who are affected by development in their territories. Consideration of Indigenous knowledge would be mandatory for all reviews.
But, while the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says they must be given “free, prior and informed consent” over projects in their regions, a government official said Ottawa will merely “aim” to meet that objective.
Earlier this week, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced proposed changes to the Fisheries Act that he said would protect coasts from negative effects of heavy-oil projects.
On Thursday, the government said it would bring forward a new Navigable Waters Act that would apply environmental protections to Canada’s vast network of lakes, rovers and canals and give communities a say in projects that affect their navigation.
Ed Fast, the Conservative environment critic, denied any suggestion that the environmental assessment process, as it was streamlined by the Harper government, had negative impacts on the environment. “I would challenge people to identify where that harm was actually caused,” said Mr. Fast, adding that he was disappointed with Ms. McKenna’s partisan remarks.
Many projects were approved under the Conservative process, Mr. Fast said, including the Northern Gateway and Keystone pipelines, the Pacific Northwest LNG project, and Enbridge’s Line 9 reversal. But there were also projects that were not approved because they did not meet environmental standards, he said, including the Prosperity Gold Mine in British Columbia.
“Decisions were based on science and the merits of those projects,” Mr. Fast said.
He said he was still going through the Liberal government’s proposed legislation, which numbered nearly 300 pages. But, at first glance, Mr. Fast, there the legislation cannot possibly improve the timeliness of approvals because it introduces new concepts and adds new stakeholder groups that must be consulted. “I believe this legislation could be the death knell of major resource development in Canada,” he said.
Alexandre Boulerice, the environmental critic for the New Democrats, said the Liberal government has taken a long time to come up with legislation that, on the positive side, reinforces the role of the regulators and allows greater public input but, on the negative, applies timelines that are too rigid and gives too much power to the minister to block or stop an evaluation process.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said “these are massive changes, some of them quite novel,” which will have to be thoroughly studied. “I don’t know well it can work,” said Ms. May. “It certainly, at this point, is more riddle than answers.”
Megan Leslie, the president of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, said she was encouraged that the government making the assessment process more transparent. But what is being proposed, said Ms. Leslie, does not amount to real change and will be subject to political influence.
“It fails to link decisions to achieving our climate targets,” she said. “It makes climate a consideration and not a requirement.”