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McKenna Unveils New Federal Review Process for Major Resource Projects

The Canadian government is poised to assign a single federal agency to review the impacts of major resource projects, make the process more open to Indigenous and public participation, and use peer review to separate good evidence from bad, under a set of proposals released late last week by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.

The “sweeping” amendments to federal laws would “reverse a series of ‘very controversial’ changes implemented by the former Harper administration in 2012,” National Observer reports, bring Ottawa “one step closer to delivering on a key Liberal campaign promise to restore public trust in federal oversight of industry.

“Our government will deliver environmental assessment and regulatory processes that regain public trust, protect the environment, support reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and ensure good projects go ahead that get resources to market sustainably,” McKenna wrote in an email to the Observer. “At the end of the day, we want to get good projects built to create jobs and support communities across our country, while protecting the environment for our children.”

The Globe and Mail reports that the new rules “would require resource companies to consult with Ottawa and Indigenous communities on major projects well before the firms finalize their plans and apply for regulatory approval.” Project proponents “would also be expected to provide greater opportunities for partnership with Indigenous peoples, and seek their consent for developments that [have an] impact [on] their traditional territory, although they would not have a veto.”

The proposal adds gender-based analysis to federal project assessments for the first time, and calls for “more transparency and better peer review of evidence, although federal officials still need to elaborate how they would implement these changes,” the Observer notes. “The proposals also include a plan to restore protections of fish habitat—removed by the former Harper government—as well as an evidence-based approach to expanding a list of types of industrial projects that would automatically trigger a federal review. Critics said the Harper government dramatically reduced federal oversight by drafting an arbitrary list of categories that would be designated for federal reviews, without considering evidence.

The federal plan rejects the modernization review panel’s proposal to move the new regulator’s headquarters out of Calgary, where the NEB is current located, envisions the NEB and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission sharing their expertise when regulatory reviews take place under the revamped system, and proposes “a separate model to deliver timely and credible energy information to Canadians.”

The federal proposal is now open for comment until August 24.

“It wasn’t simple but it’s also not over,” a senior official told the Observer. “This is a discussion paper. We’ve still got a lot of work to do…on legislation. There’s still going to be a lot of work to do on the regulatory tools, and also on the public policy and the programming on it.”

Nature Canada Conservation Director Stephen Hazell cast the release as a “step in the right direction”, but called for additional measures covering projects in national parks or with high carbon pollution.

“I don’t care if it’s a mining project or an LNG project, it shouldn’t matter. If you’re producing a lot of GHGs, it should be subject to a federal assessment, period,” he said. “The idea of national parks is you’re protecting the ecological integrity of those parks…but right now there is no requirement to do environmental assessments in national parks. It’s disgraceful.”

Terry Abel, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the government had “done a really good job of identifying improvement opportunities.” Chris Bloomer, president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, told the Globe the new framework could move broad political debates outside the project assessment process.

“There’s a lot in the discussion paper that requires further definition,” he said. “We think we can work with it, but this is not the end of the process.”

Last week, NEB Chair Peter Watson told the Canadian Press he wasn’t troubled by the modernization recommendations.

“Some of the things at the root of our challenges are embedded in our enabling legislation, so I actually think that whatever comes out of these reviews, it’s kind of time to refresh for the 21st century,” he said. “We know expectations have changed on us, and we need to keep pace with where things are going.”