Environmental groups perplexed over possible offshore assessment changes

A coalition of about 20 environmental, Indigenous and fisheries groups in Atlantic Canada and Quebec are worried the federal government may hand over responsibility for environmental impact assessments on offshore oil and gas projects to energy regulators.

Federal government considering allowing offshore energy boards to oversee environmental assessments

Gretchen Fitzgerald, the national program director of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, says offshore-energy boards are ill-equipped to perform environmental impact assessments. (CBC)

A coalition of about 20 environmental, Indigenous and fisheries groups in Atlantic Canada and Quebec are worried the federal government may hand over responsibility for environmental impact assessments on offshore oil and gas projects to energy regulators.

The concern stems from a June 2017 discussion paper put out by the Government of Canada. In the document, the government says it's considering changing how it conducts impact assessments to allow regulators such as offshore petroleum boards to be responsible for them.

Ottawa is considering streamlining the process to have it handled by one agency instead of three separate authorities.

'Conflict of interest'

"We think they have a conflict of interest. They're out there to promote industry and promote the resource," Gretchen Fitzgerald, the national program director of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, told the CBC's Information Morning.

"They don't have the inclination nor the capacity to be looking at complicated matters having to do with endangered species, ecosystem protection and other industries."

The Raging Grannies, an activist group that uses humour and music to advocate for peace and the environment, was part of Wednesday's protest march. (CBC)

On Wednesday, the Offshore Alliance held a press conference in Halifax and then a protest march to hand-deliver a letter to a government office so it could be given to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Election campaign promises

The federal Liberals promised to "make environmental assessments credible again" as part of the party's 2015 election platform.

"Canadians must be able to trust that government will engage in appropriate regulatory oversight, including credible environmental assessments, and that it will respect the rights of those most affected, such as Indigenous communities," says a posting on the Liberal Party's website. "While governments grant permits for resource development, only communities can grant permission."

Fitzgerald said the expertise of the people who work for the offshore energy regulators, of which there are two in the country — the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board — are in oil and gas, not the environment or marine species.

As part of its 2015 election platform, the federal Liberals promised to 'make environmental assessments credible again.' (CBC)

She pointed to the North American right whale as a species the offshore energy boards are ill-equipped to understand. At least 17 North Atlantic right whales died in Canadian and U.S. waters last year. There are only an estimated 450 to 500 of the whales left in the world.

Not 'good enough to protect our oceans'

"They have expertise in how to drill, but I would say that's not going to be good enough to protect our oceans," said Fitzgerald.

She said environmental impact assessments should be done by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

Mark Butler, the policy director at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, said he'd like to see offshore energy boards be given less authority, not more.

"This is a huge step backwards," he said.

Federal government responds

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency said the federal government's review of environmental and regulatory processes is ongoing.

"The government's discussion paper proposes the creation of a single federal agency responsible for conducting all major project assessments," said Lucille Jamault.

"This approach would provide more consistency for all stakeholders, greater clarity for investors, and rebuild trust in how major projects are developed in Canada.

"Any new reforms will ensure that the views of Canadians, as well as facts and evidence, will guide project decisions moving forward."

With files from Information Morning, Paul Palmeter and the Canadian Press