Rebranding part of push to streamline environmental reviews

Sources tell The Canadian Press the federal government will use the catchphrase "responsible resource development" to brand moves to streamline environmental assessment, remove bureaucratic barriers to resource extraction, and change the way the Fisheries Act oversees Canada's waterways.

'Responsible resource development' replacing 'sustainable development' in feds' vocabulary

Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver responds to a question during question period on March 9. Oliver has signalled for weeks the government's intention to streamline environmental assessments. More details could emerge in Thursday's federal budget. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal budget catch-phrase of the day will be "responsible resource development."

That's how sources say the government will be branding its moves to streamline environmental assessment, remove bureaucratic barriers to resource extraction, and change the way the Fisheries Act oversees Canada's waterways.

But since the Harper administration places so much emphasis on nomenclature, environmentalists say it's a loaded term that seeks to replace "sustainable development" as the guiding principle for environmental policy.

The phrase is already all over the website of Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

"Our government is focused on responsible development of Canada's natural resources to create jobs and economic growth as well as future prosperity," says one recent news release.

"Our government has taken great strides toward making our complex regulatory system more efficient, and we remain focused on our goal: one project, one review, in a clearly defined time period."

The budget is expected to include indications that the government will do just that. It will signal the Conservatives' intentions to eliminate overlap with provincial reviews, impose time limits on environmental hearings, and narrow the government's focus to large projects only.

Fisheries Act changes

The budget will also signal changes in the way fisheries officials deal with industry. Mining, oil sands and rural municipal officials have long complained that fisheries regulations are too extreme. Leaked drafts of proposed changes to the Fisheries Act suggest the budget will remove Ottawa's oversight over habitat in order to focus just on fish in large quantities.

And to blunt critics who say the Conservatives are dismantling environmental regulations to give free rein to the oil patch, the budget may also contain funding aimed at improving the safety record of pipelines and preventing spills.

The package, along with the "responsible" branding, amount to a throw-back to the days, decades ago, when government did little to stand in the way of business, says environment lawyer Stephen Hazell.

He said the government is required by law to implement a "sustainable development" strategy.

"'Responsible' development has no accepted legal definition that I know of," Hazell said.

"I suspect that the government is using it because Harper and Oliver fully understand that oil sands development is inherently unsustainable. Full sustainability in the oil sands would mean net zero carbon emissions, for example."

But a spokesman for Environment Minister Peter Kent says the "responsible" wording is simply a branding exercise, and nothing nefarious.

"It's just rebranding," said Rob Taylor. "We're in no way diminishing our adherence to environmental stewardship and sustainable development."

He said there has been no edict or suggestion that ministers should stop using the words "sustainable development." But he said the Conservatives do want to differentiate their approach from governments past.

"It's smarter, easier and better government," Taylor said.

"It's the principle Harper has had since the days of opposition. It doesn't have to be complicated."

The uproar over the federal government's environmental oversight has surged since this winter's hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast began.

The hearings are expected to drag on and on, as officials hear from more than 4,000 interveners. Oliver has called many of the participants "radicals" who are funded by foreign interests trying to undermine Canada's economic interests.

Environmentalists, however, say the government's rhetoric is trying to cover up its attempts to allow industrial development regardless of the costs to the environment.