As Trans Mountain debate rolls on, Ottawa pushes to change rules for big projects

Far from the din of protest over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, legislation that could alter the future of Canadian energy development is taking shape in Ottawa.

Costs of bad process would be 'extremely high,' says Alberta's environment minister

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr speaks about the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion in Ottawa on April 8. Debate is heating up in Parliament on legislation that could fundamentally change the future of Canadian energy development. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Far from the din of protest over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, legislation that could fundamentally change the future of Canadian energy development is taking shape in Ottawa.

Bill C-69, unveiled in February, is headed back to the House of Commons after passing through the committee process, where debate heated up this week as opposition MPs argued the legislation was being rushed.

"We're working through this bill and we know that, despite best efforts by everyone around this table, we're not going to get through a proper review," Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told the environment committee Tuesday evening.

Conservative MP Ed Fast went further.

"To short-circuit this by not giving this legislation the time required to get it right is quite frankly a disgrace," Fast said.

Conservative MP Ed Fast, who sits on Parliament's environment committee, has raised concerns that the legislation is being pushed ahead too quickly. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Liberals dismissed the claims, calling the accusation "offensive" and saying all parties participated in amending the bill.

The debate isn't over yet — and this week's testy exchange might just be a taste of what's to come.

This bill is all about … building the public's trust in the credibility of an assessment process when major projects are being evaluated.-—Liberal MP William Amos

In the works is a whole new process for assessing natural resource projects — one that's supposed to be more efficient and more trusted by more people, while improving the investment climate.

As balancing acts go, it's high-wire stuff.

"The costs of getting this wrong are extremely high on all sides," Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips told CBC News, "on the investor certainty side, in terms of protecting the environment, in terms of Alberta and Canada's international reputation — you name it."

The bill involves three separate acts: the Impact Assessment Act, the Canadian Energy Regulator Act and the Navigation Protection Act.

It proposes creating an Impact Assessment Agency and replacing the National Energy Board with the Canadian Energy Regulator.

'The costs of getting this wrong are extremely high on all sides,' said Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC)

This would mean an overhaul of the federal assessment process that kicks in when major energy projects, including oil pipelines, are proposed.

It would take into account not only environmental impacts, but also health, social and economic outcomes, as well as effects on Indigenous peoples. It also strives to streamline the approval process by creating a new agency to take the lead on assessing major projects.

"That's what this bill is all about it — it's about building the public's trust in the credibility of an assessment process when major projects are being evaluated," Liberal MP William Amos, who sits on the environment committee, told CBC News.

Industry, environmental groups and Indigenous leaders are among those watching closely.

It's bigger than a debate over any single project because it could shape the outcome of big projects for years to come.

Members of Canada's energy sector have been vocal in raising concerns, largely because companies feel the bill could mean more uncertainty and less investment.

It's a subject the industry is particularly sensitive about, given the problems with getting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion built, even though the federal government has approved the project.

The Canadian Energy Pipelines Association warned in its submission to the committee in the spring that it's "difficult to imagine" a new major pipeline could be built under the proposed act.

Executives have also expressed concern the bill does not address the high financial risks associated with lengthy reviews while still leaving the final say in the hands of politicians.

And though the proposed legislation sets timelines for the assessment of projects, both big and small, there are worries that getting to that stage might be a lengthy journey.

Liberal MP William Amos, who sits on the environment committee, said the bill is about building the public's trust in the credibility of an assessment process. (CBC)

The oilpatch also struggles with what it sees as an attempt to debate and resolve broader public policy issues.

The Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based public policy think-tank, weighed in Thursday, warning the regulatory process is not the place to decide government policy.

"Yet, in the absence of clear direction from the government on economic, environmental and Indigenous rights policy, the regulatory system has become the de facto forum for debating these concerns," the report said. 

"It is not set up to deal with policy debates, nor should it be." 

First Nations want a stronger bill

Others argue that energy development doesn't occur in a silo.

Some First Nations communities, many of which made submissions to the committee, believe the legislation should build on the broader effort to recognize their rights.

"This is a signal things are changing — it needs to be stronger," Kluane Adamek, interim Yukon regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations and co-chair of the AFN advisory committee on climate action and the environment, said Tuesday before the committee amended the bill. 

When the federal government announced the legislation, one of the changes highlighted was that the impact of projects on Indigenous rights and culture would be considered early in decision-making. The government would also provide financial support for more meaningful Indigenous participation.

Adamek sees positives but stresses the importance of including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the legislation — something the environment committee elected to add to the bill's preamble.

Kluane Adamek, interim Yukon regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says the federal legislation needs to be stronger. (Philippe Morin)

"When we talk about really truly honouring and upholding the spirit of reconciliation, then it will only make Canada stronger as a country if we are putting these really key and critical pieces into legislation," Adamek said.

The bill aimed to rebuild trust in the assessment process — an issue environmental advocates had long raised. It seeks to improve access to information and remove barriers to greater public participation.

'Still a lot of work to be done'

Nichole Dusyk of the Pembina Institute said the committee made some important amendments to the bill, including adding climate considerations to the portion dealing with the energy regulator.

"It basically means that all projects that are considered under the Canadian Energy Regulator will have to take into account climate considerations," Dusyk said Thursday.

"It doesn't directly specify how that will be done. It just says that it needs to be done, which I think is fundamental."

She said, "The legislation is just a framework and it needs to be implemented, There's still a lot of work to be done."


Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is senior producer with CBC's Western Business unit in Calgary. He's written for newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on the energy sector and federal politics.

With files from Susan Lunn