New environmental review limits not justified, study suggests

There is no evidence that Canada's environmental review process for projects such as oil and gas pipelines had problems that would justify the new fixed timelines set by the federal government last year, a new study suggests.

Most reviews happen within 2 years and no backlogs existed

There is no evidence that Canada's environmental review process for projects such as oil and gas pipelines had any problems that would justify the new fixed timelines announced by the federal government last year, a new study suggests.

Prior to the announcement, environmental reviews for most small projects were processed within a year, while larger projects were processed within two years, according to an analysis of tens of thousands of environmental reviews by researchers in the University of Toronto's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

"That's pretty fast, and more importantly what we found is there are no backlogs in the system," lead author Derrick (Dak) de Kerckhove, told CBC Radio's As It Happens after his study was published in the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.

Douglas Channel, south of Kitimat, BC., is the proposed terminus for an oil pipeline in the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. Such big projects may take longer to asses because of the higher environmental risk and larger area they cover compared to other projects, says researcher Derrick de Kerckhove. (Robin Rowland/Canadian Press)

In the 2012 budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that reviews conducted under the Environmental Assessment Act on major economic projects such as B.C.'s Northern Gateway pipeline could no longer take more than 24 months. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver later clarified that under the new rules "standard" assessments would take a maximum of 12 months and projects under the National Energy Board Act would take a maximum of 18 months.

The new timelines were criticized by opposition MPs and environmental groups who were concerned that they would lead to the rubber stamping of resource projects at the expense of environmental protection, especially since they were being imposed at a time when funding was being cut to the agencies that conduct the environmental reviews.

De Kerckhovea, a PhD student at the U of T, said by imposing such "arbitrary timelines" on a system where the majority of projects are reviewed quickly, "what you're really doing is cutting the environmental protection of a minority of projects that probably merited extended review and not improving the economic benefit of the vast majority of projects that were already being reviewed in time."

After the government announced the new rules, De Kerckhove said he became interested in finding out the typical lengths of environmental assessments because his own experience as a former environmental consultant was that the environmental review process was fairly efficient.

He and his colleagues were surprised to find that no estimates of the length of environmental reviews existed in Canada.

In order to get some estimates themselves, they examined annual reports to Parliament from 2001 and 2010 to estimate review times under the Fisheries Act. They found that typically, 7,000 to 13,000 projects were submitted for review each year under the act, that most were reviewed within the timelines recently imposed by the government, and there were no backlogs even in years of high volume.

De Kerckhove acknowledged that large resource or energy projects probably do take longer than average to review, but said there is a reason for that: "They often have a much higher environmental risk and they cover a much larger area of land."