Senators propose sweeping rewrite of controversial environmental assessment bill

After a crush of witness testimony and criticism from industry groups, a multipartisan group of senators has proposed hundreds of pages of amendments to the government's environmental assessment legislation.

Conservative, Independent senators are aligned on some of Bill C-69's flaws and possible fixes

Opponents of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline protest outside Liberal Party fundraising event in Vancouver, B.C. Industry groups representing virtually every natural resources sector in Canada are warning the government's environmental assessment overhaul needs a major overhaul. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

After a crush of witness testimony and criticism from industry groups, a multipartisan group of senators has proposed hundreds of pages of amendments to the government's environmental assessment legislation.

Conservative and Independent senators on the energy committee are proposing major rewrites of Bill C-69, with many of the proposed changes aimed at clarifying language around the scope and the length of the assessment process, the role of the environment minister and how much public participation should be permitted during regulatory hearings.

The changes are meant to address industry and provincial government claims that the bill, as written, could cripple the natural resources sector.

The two caucuses did not share their competing packages of amendments with one another until they actually sat down to debate changes to the bill for the first time Tuesday at the Senate energy committee — evidence of just how frosty relations are between the two sides of the Red Chamber.

It turns out that both Conservative and Independent members of that committee are largely aligned already on the bill's perceived flaws and how they might go about fixing them. Even the government has some amendments it would like to make to the bill before it clears the final legislative hurdles.

The Conservative contingent, represented by the committee's deputy chair Sen. Michael MacDonald, had proposed that its package of amendments (which it had introduced to the committee only minutes before) be adopted in its entirety. That pitch was quickly dismissed as unworkable by Independent and Liberal senators who, by that point, hadn't even read what MacDonald had proposed.

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, facilitator of the Independent Senators Group, participates in a TV interview in the Senate foyer on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa. Woo said the Senate cannot act as 'stenographers' for industry groups opposed to Bill C-69. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

MacDonald's package included amendments that had been suggested by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), among other stakeholders, and was meant to put Alberta's oilpatch at ease.

'We're senators, not stenographers'

"I ask all senators to think very carefully about whether it is appropriate for senators in the upper house of the Canadian Parliament to take a substantial package, written entirely by an industry group and to adopt it, holus-bolus, without our value-added or sober second thought," said Independent Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, the leader of the Independent group.

"We're senators, we're not stenographers. We do not believe we should simply be taking verbiage from interest groups and approving them ... We must reject this proposal to vote for 192 pages of amendments in one shot."

The Conservatives said the federal Liberal legislation is so problematic it could only be fixed by adopting the group's proposed amendments in their entirety. The Independent members said even industry groups are not demanding the bill be killed outright, but rather have called for careful tweaks.

"The Opposition in the Senate will stand with the opponents of Bill C-69. These opponents represent key economic sectors that drive economic growth," said a spokesperson for Conservative Leader in the Senate Larry Smith.

"Middle class jobs are at stake. If the government doesn't yield on amendments to Bill C-69, it will come to a great cost to Canadians."

Independent Alberta Sen. Paula Simons said it's comforting to see so much overlap between the two caucus groups on reforming C-69. "There's not a lot of radical difference. There's not actually a tremendous amount of daylight between them," she said.

Simons said it would be "ridiculous" for the two sides to simply reject each other's proposals for partisan reasons when they share goals and a mutual desire to preserve the competitiveness of the country's energy sector.

The Independent senators have made a number of amendments that would, among other things, limit the environment minister's ability to interfere in the regulatory process and stop and start project timelines. The Conservative caucus, meanwhile, wants to curb public participation in the review process to ensure timely decisions while solidifying the role of the offshore petroleum boards.

After a motion at the committee, the Senate law clerk will now review the two packages, weed out duplication and draw up a more focused list of amendments for consideration by senators.

Leaders in the upper house have agreed to finish the so-called "clause by clause" phase of the committee's review by next week — a tight timeline. There are only five sitting weeks left in this Parliament before an expected fall election.


John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.


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