Parliament passes controversial amendments to environmental assessment act



Last night Canada's Senate passed the omnibus federal government budget bill (Bill C-9), with previously deleted sections reinstated that some environmental groups fear will weaken the federal environmental assessment review process. 

The Senate's National Finance Committee, responding to requests by various environmental groups, last week cut out provisions relating to the environmental assessment process from the massive budget bill.

While some opposition party and independent senators voted against reinstating these provisions, a handful of Liberal senators were absent during last night's crucial vote, thereby allowing passage of the Bill (48 to 44). The Bill quickly received royal assent and became law late Monday night.

The sections of Bill C-9 relating to the environmental review process are intended to strengthen Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) ability to improve the timeliness of federal environmental assessments; to establish clear lines of accountability; and to focus resources where they could produce the greatest benefit to the environment and the economy.

The measures remove the obligation for a federal environmental assessment to be conducted on projects funded though federal programs, including those that channel infrastructure money to municipalities and first nations.

They would also turn assessments of energy projects that are currently conducted by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency over to the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which according to the government have more expertise than CEAA.

And they would give the Minister of the Environment the power to determine the scope of any assessment.  

'Unfortunately, the Environmental Assessment process has not worked as well as it needs to and requires fixing,' said Environment Minister Jim Prentice earlier this month in a Toronto Star article. 'It is prone to delay, these delays have caused difficulties in harmonization with the provinces, and it has not benefited the environment and also harmed the economy.'

In principle, the federal environmental assessment process is handled by the Canadian Environmental Review Agency (CERA). Interestingly, that agency does not do environmental assessments. Rather, it coordinates the activities of over 100 departments and agencies that have environmental review responsibilities as part of their legislation and supporting regulatory powers.

Mr. Prentice noted that various federal departments have spent 'not simply months but in fact years' trying to determine who should take the lead on some projects, making it all but impossible for the federal government to co-ordinate its reviews with those done by the provinces.

In essence, what the Bill C-9 amendments do is to make permanent the temporary regulations put in place in 2009 to support Canada's Economic Action Plan. Those regulations exempt routine public infrastructure projects from environmental assessment

Many industry critics are frustrated by the laborious and time consuming environmental review process, which for large projects could drag on for years. British Columbia has been critical of the inefficiency and duplication of effort associated with the review of several major projects valued at over $3 billion that are on hold in BC awaiting completion of environmental reviews, both federal and provincial.

BC's Environmental Permitting process for major projects often duplicates that carried out by federal agencies, though the latter usually is more expensive and lengthy. With the federal government stepping aside from many assessments, a larger number will be left in provincial hands.

While most environmental groups agree duplication of effort and costly delays in decision making do not serve the public well, they fear the new powers granted under Bill C-9 will give the federal environment minister the ability to scope down assessments of such projects as offshore oil drilling.

There would be nothing stopping the minister to say for this offshore facility [for instance,] 'Don't look at the alternative, don't look at greenhouse gases, and don't look at contingency plans. Let's just focus on, let's say, wastewater discharges or the onboard storage or loading facilities, or just look at impacts on fish,' said Richard Lindgren, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, quoted in a Hill Times article.

'The way to actually streamline the assessment process is to address some of the environmental issues up front and do the planning there.' said Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute, which is critical of the approval policy for major energy developments, quoted in a Reuters article when Bill C-9 was first introduced.

He added federal authorities should formulate regional standards for such things as water use, wildlife habitat and monitoring so developers can address them in the early planning stages rather than fostering an adversarial process.

Environmentalists and other special interest groups will now turn their attention to the statutory Five-Year Parliamentary review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act that will begin in the fall.

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