Budget shortens environmental review process

Major resource projects like the Northern Gateway oil pipeline will complete environmental reviews quicker under new timelines introduced in Thursday's budget.
Changes announced in Thursday's federal budget will mean environmental reviews of projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline, which will bring oilsands crude to tankers in B.C.'s Douglas Channel, would last no more than 24 months. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Major resource projects like the Northern Gateway oil pipeline in British Columbia will complete environmental reviews faster under new timelines introduced in Thursday's federal budget.

"The new timelines will apply" to the Northern Gateway pipeline, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty  said in a briefing at the Government Conference Centre in Ottawa.

Currently, major resource projects can take as long six years to approve. Under the new rules, the whole process will take no more than 24 months.

The speedier assessments are part of the government’s plan to encourage economic growth through resource development.

"Where's the growth going to come from in the Canadian economy? It's going to come from innovation, it's going to come from an accelerated regulatory system," Flaherty said.

Environmentalists worry that is code for gutting the environmental assessment process.

"They are willing to do anything to please the oil industry," said Steven Guilbeault of Equiterre, an environmental charity based in Montreal.

"Not only are they changing the rules of the game but they are doing this in the middle of the game," he added.

The Northern Gateway is a pipeline proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. that would carry petroleum from the Alberta oil sands to a port on B.C.'s north coast, from where it could be shipped to Asia.

Charities under scrutiny

The budget also has tax-code changes that relate to political advocacy that will affect green charities. Currently, a charity can devote 10 per cent of its budget to advocating political causes. That won't change, but the Canada Revenue Agency will now get new auditing powers to ensure charities are sticking to the 10 per cent.

"There is clearly a need for more vigilance," Flaherty argued.

"I'm actually surprised. We've been hearing about this," said a visibly disturbed Guilbeault, adding he couldn't believe the government would actually put it into law given the type of language the government has used to describe environmentalists lately.

"Some [environmental] organizations have been walking on eggs because of the threats from [Natural Resouces Minister] Joe Oliver or [Environment Minister Peter] Kent," he added.

Oliver and other Conservative ministers have referred to environmentalists who opposed Alberta's oilsands as "radicals."

The government is also eliminating another agency Guilbeault says was a thorn in Ottawa's side. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which conducted regular studies on subjects like the possible effects of a warming planet on the Canadian economy and how to deal with reducing greenhouse gases, will be eliminated.

In noting the move, the budget said "a mature and expanded community of environmental stakeholders has demonstrated the capacity to provide analysis and policy advice to the government."

"Climate change, carbon tax. They don't want to hear anything about that," Gulibeault added.