Politics

'Nail in the coffin': Oilpatch boosters demand Ottawa overhaul 'terrible' Bill C-69

Proponents of Canada's energy sector are raising the alarm about Ottawa's move to overhaul the environmental assessment process for major resource projects — warning that Bill C-69 could devastate an industry already grappling with constrained pipeline capacity and depressed commodity prices.

Resource industry advocates say proposed regulatory process gives too much power to environment minister

Oilpatch proponents fear the Liberal government's Bill C-69 will make it more difficult to secure approvals for new natural resources projects, like pipelines. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

Proponents of Canada's energy sector are raising the alarm about Ottawa's move to overhaul the environmental assessment process for major resource projects — warning that Bill C-69 could devastate an industry already grappling with constrained pipeline capacity and depressed commodity prices.

And as the Senate begins to dig into the lengthy 340-page bill, oilpatch boosters are flooding the offices of individual senators with letters demanding that members of the upper house either defeat the legislation or force a major rewrite.

The letter-writing initiative is being led by Rick Peterson, a former Conservative leadership contender and an Edmonton-based investment banker.

"Bill C-69 is so terrible ... it would be the hammer that drives the nail in the coffin of resource sector investment in Canada," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"This bill would choke off investment in Canada's resource sector by imposing environmental and review standards that are clearly focused on a green agenda rather than on responsible resource development. We're not going to stand by and let that happen to our economy and our resource sector families."

'Too timid'

Peterson said he was inspired to launch his "Suits and Boots" campaign because he fears that much of the public dialogue about natural resource development has been monopolized by environmental activists and their "antics."

"We're trying to counter some of the noise that is coming from the other side. The pro-resource side has been too timid. We've been sitting back, wringing our hands," he said.

"This campaign allows those Canadians who don't dangle from bridges in Vancouver, who don't scale the Olympic Stadium in Montreal or wear fake hazmat suits on Parliament Hill, (to) have a voice."

Peterson said that, with an increasingly independent Red Chamber now less beholden to party politics and government demands, "grassroots Canadians" can more effectively pressure senators to "kill this bill or severely alter it or take away the bad (aspects) of it."

Alberta businessman Rick Peterson, a former Conservative leadership contender, has launched the "Suits and Boots" campaign to force the government to either kill C-69 or substantially rewrite the legislation. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

He estimates tens of thousands of letters and phone calls have arrived at senators' offices since the campaign launched in April. CBC News surveyed a number of Senate offices and all said they had received in excess of 500 letters so far.

Former Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay, who now heads the Canada West Foundation think tank, is also lending her voice to the opposition campaign demanding a "reboot" of the bill.

Hall Findlay said that while she generally supports the government's move to overhaul the country's "terrible" environmental assessment process — and that she believes Canada's natural resources should be harvested in an environmentally sustainable way — the legislation as written preserves some of the worst aspects of the existing regime.

The Liberal government introduced C-69 earlier this year, touting the Impact Assessment Act as a way to streamline the approvals process for natural resources projects while bolstering consultation efforts with Indigenous communities affected by extractive industries.

The act would replace a web of competing regulatory bodies with a new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, a single entity that would be empowered to carry out a review of all major projects in this country — assessing not just environmental factors but also health, social and economic impacts, and effects on Indigenous people, over the long term.

The bill sets out defined timelines for the Impact Assessment Agency's review of these projects — a response to industry claims that the regulatory process is too long and unpredictable.

The bill also would give the minister of the environment and/or cabinet (depending on the type of project) the final call on whether a project should get a green light.

That decision — which would weigh the public interest in the project against its potential for adverse effects — must be made 30 days after an assessment is delivered to the minister. The government has said this corrects the current lack of specific timelines and deadlines for project decisions by the federal government.

It's the promise of a streamlined, swifter process that recently earned C-69 the endorsement of the Mining Association of Canada.

But while the government claims shortened timelines will come about as a result of C-69, the addition of a "pre-assessment" process — which can last for up to 180 days — has some in the energy sector worried the process will only take longer.

This new pre-assessment process has been presented by Ottawa as a chance for companies to adequately consult with the public and Indigenous communities before launching into the more formal approvals process.

Ottawa says it will help industry address potential problems early and stave off negative court decisions like the one recently handed to the Trans Mountain expansion project. Critics maintain it adds another layer of regulatory oversight to an industry already drowning in red tape.

'Too much is left to political whim'

Hall Findlay said one of the most problematic aspects of C-69 is the latitude it gives to the environment minister or cabinet. She noted that most of these "strict" timelines can be extended at a minister's request, and approvals can be arbitrarily denied even after a proponent has secured a go-ahead from regulators.

"There is so much left unknown," she said in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics. "There is too much political decision-making, too much left to political whim."

That's what happened with the now-defunct Northern Gateway project, she said.

Martha Hall Findlay, president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, joined Power & Politics Wednesday to discuss her concerns with Bill C-69. 6:11

The government cancelled that project even after its proponent, Enbridge, got the necessary approvals from the National Energy Board following a lengthy — and costly — assessment process. (Another major change with Bill C-69 is that the NEB will be dismantled and replaced by a new entity called the Canadian Energy Regulator, with an entirely new governance structure.)

Ottawa then refused to make the fixes proposed by the Federal Court of Appeal after that body quashed Northern Gateway's approvals, claiming inadequate Indigenous consultation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited opposition from some local Indigenous peoples for justifying the cancellation in November 2016. At the time, Trudeau said it would be a mistake to move crude through the pristine Great Bear rainforest, describing the region as the "jewel" of B.C.

Other First Nations and Métis​ peoples lamented the move, as they had a substantial ownership stake in the project — and are now suing the government for ending their investment efforts.

Hall Findlay said approvals should be depoliticized as much as possible, with less discretion given to the minister of the day.

She also argued in a recent paper for the Canada West Foundation that the regulator "must (be) empowered to do its job" — to make the final decision on whether the project should proceed, based on technical merit, local and regional effects, risk mitigation measures and potential benefits.

"The government needs to trust the regulator. Otherwise, how can Canadians be expected to trust it?"

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna fields questions at a news conference as the G7 environment, oceans and energy ministers meet in Halifax. McKenna, or her successor, would have the final say on a major natural resources projects under Bill C-69 (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Peterson said he is also concerned about giving Environment Minister Catherine McKenna the final say on a pipeline or a uranium mine.

"This should be a regulatory decision made by an independent group," he said. "If the environment minister has the final say on prolonging or stopping or holding up a regulatory approval basis, then it's a political decision.

"We don't need political decisions in resource development. We need clarity, we need independence, we need guidelines, we need rules, we need timelines and C-69 adds a level of fuzziness and vagueness and elasticity to all this."

The government has said that while the bill preserves existing ministerial authority over a project, the process will be much more transparent as a "decision statement" will be published detailing the considerations and the rationale that went into the final verdict.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.