Canada’s government took the first step this week toward restoring its citizens’ badly shaken confidence in the environmental impact assessment process at the heart of approving major energy infrastructure projects. No fewer than six Cabinet ministers showed up on Monday to announce a 30-day period for public comments on the government’s plan for hearing public comments on the EA process.
Government House Leader and Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc led the group announcing “a comprehensive review of environmental and regulatory processes.” But the political importance the Trudeau government placed on the initiative was underscored by the additional presence of Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, Transport Minister Marc Garneau, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan.
The review is one of the first by the 7½-month-old government to directly challenge a central pillar of its predecessor’s ideology. The previous Conservative government undertook several reforms designed to speed up federal approvals of resource and energy projects. The Harper regime reassigned some impact reviews to the National Energy Board (NEB) from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, restricted the range of issues the Board was mandated to address, limited who could appear in public hearings, and set arbitrary deadlines for reviews to be completed. It also stripped long-standing federal protection from thousands of fish species, navigable lakes, and streams.
The Liberals promised during last year’s election campaign to review the federal process for approving large resource projects. The proposal the ministers put to Canadians this week would strike two expert committees to examine the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the mandate, structure, and governance of the NEB. Protection for fisheries and navigable waters will be referred to committees of the House of Commons. All four reviews are to conclude by the end of January, 2017.
In a release, the government said it is intent on “rebuilding trust in environmental assessment processes; modernizing the National Energy Board; and restoring lost protections and introducing modern safeguards to the Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act.”
Environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) welcomed the review. “The current system has polarized Canadians by driving a wedge between industry, government, NGOs, and citizens with legitimate environmental concerns,” said West Coast Environmental Law Staff Counsel Anna Johnston. “This is a chance to build a law that truly safeguards the things Canadians value.”
Added Steven Guilbeault, Senior Director of Montreal-based Équiterre: “The federal government now has the opportunity to bring federal environmental assessment processes in line with our recent climate change commitment under the UNFCCC in Paris. This includes ensuring all energy infrastructure projects are subjected to a rigorous, science-based climate test.”