The federal government is reducing the number of departments and agencies that can do environmental reviews from 40 to just three to speed up approvals for projects that will bolster Canada's economy, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said today.
Expanding on plans announced in the March 29 budget, Oliver on Tuesday laid out the specifics of the Conservative government's major overhaul of environmental assessments, aimed at speeding up what the minister labelled a "duplicative, cumbersome and uncertain" process.
The moves are sure to please companies that have long complained of a lengthy, costly review process, citing previous major projects that have taken almost a decade to gain approval.
But the measures were immediately condemned by opposition MPs and environmental groups, which said the Harper government's push for "streamlining" was merely code for gutting Canada's environmental assessment process.
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The government will move to a "one project, one review" policy on environmental projects by recognizing provincial reviews, as long as they meet the requirements of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the minister said.
Oliver insisted the new plan is critical to creating jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity.
"With scarce resources, it is counter-productive to have the federal and provincial governments completing separate reviews of the same project," Oliver said in Toronto.
"We need to tap into the tremendous appetite for resources in the world’s dynamic emerging economies — resources we have in abundance."
The only federal bodies to carry out reviews will be the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
Timelines to apply to Northern Gateway
There will be "fixed timelines" for major economic projects, he said:
- 24 months for review panels under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
- 18 months for projects under the National Energy Board Act.
- 12 months for "standard" assessments.
Once approved, the proposed timelines, which Oliver said would be tabled in Parliament "fairly soon," will apply to current projects being reviewed, including the Northern Gateway pipeline project in British Columbia.
Northern Gateway is before a Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Under the new rules, a review panel would have to be finished within 24 months, which could mean the Northern Gateway review would have to wrap up in May of this year — a full year-and-a-half before it was scheduled to end.
But Oliver said the proposed changes to what projects qualify for JRPs would not be applied to Northern Gateway.
Government officials said the proposed legislation also ensures that only people with a "direct interest" would be allowed to intervene in a project review, but gave no indication how "direct interest" would be defined.
They also offered a clue as to how the government would identify which projects are "major", citing lists in current provincial legislation in British Columbia and Quebec.
Projects that don't meet the federal government’s definition of major will be assessed by provinces using provincial criteria. If no such criteria exist or a province doesn't deem a certain project worthy of assessment, it won't get an environmental assessment.
Oliver also dismissed critics' assertions that the proposed overhaul would lead to a rubber-stamping of projects for the benefit of corporate interests over environmental concerns.
"Some claim that it is an either/or proposition, the economy or the environment. We disagree," Oliver said. "We believe the two can — and must — go together."
Moves gut environmental protection, say critics
Environmental groups and opposition parties, however, insist the government is merely giving big energy companies carte blanche by dismantling the checks and balances that protect the environment.
"After slashing funding to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, they’re now saddling it with the obligation to do more complex reviews, faster, with fewer resources," NDP environment critic Megan Leslie said Tuesday.
"You're going to have less time, less resources from the federal government to actually look at and understand these projects and less opportunity for the public to point out errors and omissions in submissions by proponents," John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, told CBCNews.ca.
Green Party Leader and MP Elizabeth May said the moves go farther than what industry stakeholders were asking for.
"This kind of savaging of the environmental assessment process are more about speeding the development even more than the industry needs," May told CBC News Network.
May and Bennett both said the overall impact from the government's move comes not just from changing the rules, but from cutting budgets of federal departments such as Environment Canada, and firing hundreds of scientists who currently contribute to the environmental review process and work to protect Canadians from environmental disasters.
"What's really happening here is that the federal government is abdicating its responsibility and trying to get out of the protecting-the-environment business," Sierra Club's Bennett said. "Why don't they go all the way and shut down Environment Canada and be honest and say, 'We don't give a shit'? Because that's what they're doing."
The government counters that by not reviewing small, minor projects, it can focus more resources on major ones, as well as back up "enforceable" assessment decisions with financial penalties of up to $400,000 for companies that refuse to comply with decision conditions.
David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, applauded the measures, saying they will address some of the uncertainty companies face over how long their applications take in the existing process.
Collyer said he believes that eliminating agency overlap and redundancy allows for more resources to be directed to assessments of major projects that have a larger potential for environmental impact.
"I don't see anything in any of the announcements that would indicate to me that there's any intention to reduce environmental oversight," Collyer told CBCNews.ca.
"The focus on responsible environmental outcomes, we all expect that and Canadians expect that."
In addition, the Harper government will spend $35 million over two years on marine safety and $13.5 million on pipeline safety to help protect the environment, Oliver said.
That will include requiring double hulls and mandatory pilots on oil tankers, as well as more inspections of oil and gas pipelines.