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The fast and the furious - Coming changes to environmental laws speed up process for industry and are an accident waiting to happen for the public and our environment

31 January, 2012

The federal government seems set on further gutting the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), and is expected to introduce “sweeping” regulatory changes to CEAA and related legislation in the House of Commons in the coming weeks. These changes could affect upcoming proposals for pipelines, tar sands projects, mines, small and large energy generation, and much more. It is possiblethe government could also use this opportunity to affect the process for projects currently in the environmental review process, like the Enbridge oil pipeline and supertanker, New Prosperity, or Site C Clean Energy Project proposals.

If you share our concerns after reading this post, why not raise your concerns with the federal Ministers, your Member of Parliament, and opposition critics.

How far will the government go, and how fast? We can’t yet be sure; although transparency is continuously trumpeted as a core value of our current federal government, we have yet to hear any update as to what is actually planned, or what sort of report may be coming out of the Standing Committee charged with reviewing CEAA (see our blog post from January 10, 2012 for more details on that process).

Our elected leaders are dropping hints, however.

In his address to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce last week, Peter Kent, Minister of the Environment, referred to a “one window” approach – a concept which too often involves eliminating strong environmental laws in favour of a weaker version. He went on to liken the “scrutiny” that the government will be applying to environmental assessment laws to the “early Christmas present” Kent gave to himself “and to Canada”, which was to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.

I have to say [withdrawing from Kyoto] really wasn’t a tough decision--especially when framed by those parameters of efficiency and effectiveness.

Of course, that’s the point – Canada’s environment Minister should be primarily focused on protecting our environment first, and only secondarily on economic efficiency. This type of statement makes one a little wary of what Kent is thinking of getting himself for Valentine’s Day or Easter.

Kent’s colleague Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources, has stated:

[W]e need to make sure that the regulatory process occurs within a defined and limited timeframe… that’s one of the issues we’re going to be looking at.

The Prime Minister’s Office also recently confirmed that the government’s “top priority remains the economy and creating jobs.” Public concern, opposition from many First Nations, and the hope of sustainable development apparently do not register on the list of priorities at all.

NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie has noted there are concerns about regulatory timelines outside of the public participation component of environmental reviews. Both Leslie and Kirsty Duncan, Liberal Environment Critic have found the many cuts to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s budget over the past years concerning, as the Agency’s now-anemic budget leaves it with a greatly reduced capacity. Green Party leader Elizabeth May fears the federal government is prepared to gut the agency: “This is a government that wants a verdict first and evidence later, …[o]r a verdict first and evidence never.” The Green Party also agrees that there are some projects so complex that they simply cannot be fast-tracked.

In our view, the fast and furious changes the federal government seeks to make to environmental assessment laws and regulations will not result in “enhanced environmental quality”, “decision making processes … that promote sustainable development”, “facilitating public participation in the environmental assessment of projects” or any of the other goals explicitly stated in the current preamble to CEAA.  Indeed, in the long-run, hastily thought out “improvements” may result in a continued loss of public, and First Nations’, confidence in the process, and a resulting increase in uncertainty for the very businesses that these changes are supposedly intended to help. 

We think that Canada’s environment, the views of the public, and the rights of Indigenous peoples matter when our government is making decisions about natural resource use and development projects. Efficiency is a worthy goal, but a reasonable amount of time is needed for scientific and public education about, and scrutiny of proposed major projects that would impact multiple First Nations, provinces, ecosystems, and species at risk.

Please consider telling Prime Minister Harper, Environment Minister Kent, and Natural Resources Minister Oliver that you won’t accept rushed reviews, silencing of the public and of First Nations, rubber-stamping and destructive megaprojects.

See this link for additional background information.

The backgrounder and the following sample letter were developed by members of the Environment Planning and Assessment Caucus of the Canadian Environmental Network (our own Josh Paterson is co-chair of the Caucus).

 

What You Can Do

Please write to Minister Kent to express your concerns about the federal government’s intention to weaken federal environmental assessment laws and undermine sustainable development in Canada. Send copies to Prime Minister Harper, Natural Resources Minister Oliver, and the opposition parties’ environment critics, as well as your own Member of Parliament. Please forward us your letter [admin [at] wcel.org ] so we can keep track of who has written.

Most importantly, talk to your neighbours, friends and colleagues. Canadians have put a lot of hard work into trying to create an environmental assessment process that protects the environment from inappropriate development projects and gives the public a say in development. We will not accept a review process that is “streamlined” to artificially limit public participation and ensure that potentially destructive megaprojects proceed without serious consideration of their impacts – and without those safeguards in place we will not accept the projects themselves.

Click here to send the following letter to Environment Minister Peter Kent, or send your own.

  • If you can, personalize your message by adding information about your own specific concerns. This could relate to a particular type of development projects, a particular environmental assessment, or other sustainable development issues.
  • Make sure to send a copy to your own Member of Parliament.
  • Below the letter, you will find a list of the relevant addresses and emails.

 


 

Dear Minister Kent,

Don’t further trash the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act! This law is critical to understanding and mitigating the adverse environmental effects of developments such as pipelines, tar sands projects, and mines.

Eliminating legal requirements and limiting public participation in project reviews makes environmental disasters such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdez, and Fukushima more likely. I know that you don’t want catastrophes like these to happen in Canada.

That’s why I am urging you to work with Parliament to strengthen the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to make it more effective, efficient, and open to public participation. Canadians want all development projects to be sustainable, and a stronger environmental assessment law – not a weaker one – is key to achieving that goal.

Thank you for considering my views.

Sincerely,

[your name here]

copy:
The Right Hon. Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada
The Hon. Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources
Megan Leslie, MP, NDP Environment Critic
Kirsty Duncan, MP, Liberal Environment Critic
Maria Mourani, MP, Bloc Québecois Environment Critic
Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party

 


 

To find your Member of Parliament, use the Parliamentary directory at http://www.parl.gc.ca/SenatorsMembers.aspx?Language=E

Please forward us your letter [admin [at] wcel.org ] so we can keep track of who has written.

Mail may be sent postage-free to any Member of Parliament at the following address:

House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6

The Honourable Peter Kent
Minister of the Environment
Tel. (613) 992-0253
Fax: (613) 992-0887
Peter.Kent@parl.gc.ca

The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
Tel. (613) 992-4211
Fax: (613) 941-6900
Stephen.Harper@parl.gc.ca

The Honourable Joe Oliver
Minister of Natural Resources
Tel. (613) 992-6361
Fax: (613) 992-9791
Joe.Oliver@parl.gc.ca

Megan Leslie
Tel. (613) 995-7614
Fax: (613) 992-8569
Megan.Leslie@parl.gc.ca

Kirsty Duncan
Tel. (613) 995-4702
Fax: (613) 995-8359
Kirsty.Duncan@parl.gc.ca

Maria Mourani
Tel. (613) 992-0983
Fax: (613) 992-1932
Maria.Mourani@parl.gc.ca

Elizabeth May
Tel. (613) 996-1119
Fax: (613) 996-0850
Elizabeth.May@parl.gc.ca

 

Backgrounder

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA, or the Act) is one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in Canada. It often provides for more public participation and a more rigorous review than provincial assessment legislation, and in many cases covers projects not subject to provincial assessment at all. The Act has been in place since 1995.

CEAA was intended to promote sustainable development by forcing federal authorities to make sure that an environmental assessment was done on any projects they were required to authorise. It worked, but it did have a number of problems that environmental groups, aboriginal organisations, and government agencies have tried to resolve over the years. Many of the problems have been addressed. For example, harmonization agreements between federal and provincial governments allow them to undertake joint reviews that meet both their requirements, while reducing duplication and confusion for proponents and the public.

Other problems have never been resolved; for example, the Act is centred on assessing the environmental impacts of physical projects, so government policies, plans, and programs are not included – things like fisheries policies, regional development plans, or plans for disposing of high-level nuclear fuel waste. The review process also suffered resistance from some government departments, such as Fisheries and Oceans, that didn’t want to take responsibility for larger environmental issues. MiningWatch Canada had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure that assessments could not be artificially defined to limit their scope and avoid the Act’s public involvement requirements. And it suffered periodic setbacks, especially when the Navigable Waters Protection Act was amended in 2009 to exclude it from CEAA, and CEAA itself amended in 2010 to exclude projects funded under the government’s Economic Action Plan from environmental assessment.

The Environmental Planning and Assessment Caucus of the Canadian Environment Network has continued working hard to engage the public and develop thoughtful, evidence-based proposals for a better federal EA process, and has produced a significant body of research and documentation.

CEAA Under Review

The Act includes a requirement for Parliament to review it by June 2010. However, the government did no public preparation for the review and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development only started working on it in October, 2011. The Committee held a scant five weeks of public hearings – nine sessions of less than two hours each, with witnesses allowed all of ten minutes to make their initial presentations, and only two days’ notice of the final deadline for written submissions. The Committee has not yet published its report.

This is a stark contrast with the previous review of the Act, which included extensive public consultations, government discussion papers, and thorough public discussions in the Standing Committee.

Meanwhile, Stephen Harper, Peter Kent, and Joe Oliver have all made public pronouncements about the environmental assessment process allowing too much public input, taking too long, creating uncertainty for investors, and threatening economic development. It is clear from their statements as well as from industry talking points – and a leaked government document – that the government is eager to reduce the scope and effectiveness of the federal environmental assessment process if it can’t eliminate it altogether. Small projects would be no longer be screened, and the assessment of large projects will be “delegated” – no longer handled by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Some are already handled (badly) by the National Energy Board and the Nuclear Safety Commission, and this could be extended to other federal and even provincial agencies, resulting in an inconsistent patchwork of reviews, incomprehensible to the public – and ineffective in protecting the public interest – the environment and people’s livelihoods.

 

post by Rachel S. Forbes, Staff Lawyer, and by the Environment Planning and Assessment Caucus of the Canadian Environmental Network