Panel members will decide who will be allowed to appear at future environmental reviews on a "case-by-case, project-by-project" basis, a sub-committee looking into the government's budget implementation bill heard this morning.

The government has said it plans to streamline the environmental assessment process and limit witnesses to experts and those who are "directly affected" by a major industrial project being reviewed.

Opposition MPs wanted to know Thursday how the government will define who is "directly affected."

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Environment Minister Peter Kent, who answered MPs' questions on his department's budget estimates for four hours Tuesday night, appeared Thursday at a finance subcommittee looking into environmental assessment changes in the omnibus budget bill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"The word 'direct' I think is pretty clear. It is those who would be affected by the project in question," said Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver in answer to a question from NDP MP Peter Julian.

Critics of this part of the omnibus budget bill, C-38, say it is a way to limit the number of dissenting opinions at public environmental hearings. Department bureaucrats had a different explanation at Thursday's committee hearing.

"These are tools that we are putting into the tool kit for managers — panel managers, in particular — of these projects to be able to manage the process effectively and efficiently," explained Jay Khosla, head of the Major Projects Management Office, a new agency designed to help industry navigate the regulatory process.

Surprise appearances

Three ministers made surprise appearances at the sub-committee's first meeting today, much to the consternation of opposition members.

The sub-committee is looking into the changes to environmental and fisheries legislation contained in C-38. Along with Oliver, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield and Environment Minister Peter Kent both made statements and answered questions.

Among many other measures, bill C-38 repeals the old Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and replaces it with a new one.

One of the provisions would allow provinces to do environmental assessments if they can meet federal standards. The government argues this would reduce duplication.

Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan asked Kent if the government had studied each province and territory's ability to conduct environmental assessments.

"The law provides very specifically that if a province does not have the capacity to undertake an environmental assessment, the minister has the discretion to direct that it be done by CEAA [Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency]," answered Kent.

Duncan wasn't satisfied with that answer and asked Kent to table the provincial and territorial studies done by the government.

"You'll be able to see that online with regard to the projects that are currently under assessment and those that are proposed when the new Act comes into effect," responded Kent.

Ashfield took several questions on the main change in the Fisheries Act, which would no longer protect all fish habitat but instead protect only commercial, recreational and aboriginal fisheries.