With a new fossil lobby group, Suits and Boots, urging Conservative senators to slow down passage of the Trudeau government’s new Impact Assessment Act, Bill C-69, climate and energy advocates are gearing up their defence of a bill aimed at restoring some of the environmental protections that were gutted by the previous Harper regime.
“Bill C-69 would reform the process for assessing the impacts of proposed resource projects, and modernize the discredited National Energy Board,” explains Stephen Hazell, policy director and general counsel at Nature Canada, in a recent opinion piece for The Hill Times. But “Conservative Senators, alongside Independent Senators Group Sen. Doug Black, who represents Alberta, have bought into this campaign to kill Bill C-69 by planning to rag the puck until the Senate prorogues in June.”
Which means that “the votes of 60 Independent and non-affiliated Senators and 10 Senate Liberals will be critical in determining if this ploy succeeds,” Hazell writes. Environmental groups are running a sign-on campaign urging senators to speed up the bill’s passage.
“Defeating Bill C-69 would be a great political victory for the Conservatives, given that enactment would deliver on a key Liberal campaign commitment to restore public trust in project reviews,” Hazell notes. “The passionate opposition of members of the oil and gas industry is more difficult to understand, given that their stated criticisms of Bill C-69 are rubbish.”
Hazell details the problems with the current impact assessment law, forced through by the Harper majority government as part of an omnibus bill that cleared Parliament in just three months. “It lacked the flexibility to achieve the ‘one project, one assessment’ goal by bringing provincial agencies into joint processes,” he writes. “Only experts and folks directly affected by projects could participate in NEB or panel reviews,” and interveners in hearings on the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion were denied the right to question witnesses.
In the end, “the 2012 legislated timelines slowed assessments rather than speeding them up, even as the National Energy Board fed public mistrust in the process,” Hazell recalls. “The law also threw out the legal requirement to assess most categories of projects, introducing the very uncertainties and opportunities for political interference that Suits and Boots now decries in Bill C-69.”
By contrast, while the version of C-69 that passed the House of Commons is far from perfect, it “removes the statutory limits on public participation in impact assessments, and provides for more meaningful public participation generally,” he explains. “An early engagement process is established in order to build social licence for projects in local and Indigenous communities, scope assessments to ensure that they focus on issues of concern, and ultimately save industry time and money in the process.”
The bill “focuses on the overall sustainability of projects, and not just on whether adverse biophysical effects are significant.” And it “advances reconciliation by recognizing Indigenous knowledge and rights, and providing governance opportunities in impact assessments by Indigenous governments.”
All of which leaves Hazell to speculate about the industry’s real motivation in trying to quash C-69 through the Suits and Boots campaign. The problem, he says, might be with a measure that undercuts a regulatory ally that fossils have been happy to rely on.
“The National Energy Board has shown repeatedly that it is a captured regulator, with several members accused of bias because of their connections to the oil and gas industry,” he writes. “The NEB virtually always delivers what the oil and gas industry says it wants; the proposed new Impact Assessment Agency may not be so pliable in following directions in conducting assessments.”
Which might help explain the overheated accusations against C-69 that have been emerging as the bill moves toward a final countdown for adoption. “The past few weeks have been characterized by a growing chorus of political and media voices, many from the West, decrying the Canadian government’s proposed environmental assessment legislation,” write Mark Winfield of York University, Deborah Curran of the University of Victoria, and Martin Olszynski of the University of Calgary, in a mid-October analysis for The Conversation.
“The bill has been criticized by the Canada West Foundation, the federal Conservative opposition, the Alberta government, parts of the fossil fuel industry, as well as some columnists and editorial boards,” the trio writes. “In reading their commentary, one could come away with the impression the legislation proposes radical changes, to be recklessly imposed by a government ideologically opposed to the resource sector.”
But “the reality of the bill’s contents is rather less dramatic.” It proposes “marginal adjustments” that largely keep the existing assessment process intact, widens participation in assessments, widens the scope to cover a project’s economic, social, health, and gender impacts, both positive and negative, and acknowledges Indigenous rights—while failing to build the kind of governance structures that would be needed to implement the UN Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“The review process that would be established through Bill C-69 would remain a shadow of what existed before 2012,” the three academics note. And “completely absent from the critical commentary is any acknowledgement that the 2012 revisions to the federal review process are widely seen as an abject failure. Rather than facilitating the approval of energy projects, they have led to deeper political, social, and legal conflicts than ever.”
But that hasn’t stopped the hyperbole from the fossil lobby, and from both sides of the political spectrum.
“Bill C-69 is the greatest threat to the future of your industry since the National Energy Program,” federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer told an industry audience in Calgary last month. “Justin Trudeau has told Canadians more than once that he wants to phase out your industry,” and “Bill C-69 is the centrepiece in how he will do it.”
“We’ve said to the federal government that you need to make significant changes to this bill or you’re going to doom our energy sector,” added Alberta Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous.
“Bill C-69 is so terrible…it would be the hammer that drives the nail in the coffin of resource sector investment in Canada,” said Rick Peterson, the Edmonton-area investment banker and former Conservative leadership candidate who now heads Suits and Boots.
“It’s definitely not gotten investor confidence, and there’s pieces in this bill that sabotage the public confidence as well,” Tim McMillan, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, told Bloomberg. Rushing the bill through without amendments, he added, “will do substantial damage to our economy”.
“It is difficult to imagine that a new major pipeline could be built in Canada,” the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association agreed in a submission to Parliament. “The cumulative effect of this suite of policies has significantly weakened investor confidence in Canada.”
The pushback included at least one mid-October rally in Calgary, with opponents claiming the bill “sends the wrong message” to investors. “This legislation doesn’t fit the message that the country is concerned about the energy sector,” said organizer Cody Battershill. “It sends the opposite…that Canada is not open for business.”
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued the new legislation “will bring certainty to a sector frustrated by a series of legal defeats,” Bloomberg reports. The PM said C-69 will give fossils and other resource companies “a much better idea up front of how long it’s going to take” and “what the risks are that [a project] might be not approved or approved.”
As the political fight over C-69 unfolds, the bill is accumulating support from a wider mix of organizations. In a mid-September op ed for the Globe and Mail, the president and CEO of the Mining Association of Canada cast the bill as an antidote to a decade of politicization and legislative uncertainty that he said has undermined investor confidence in Canada.
“The bill is not perfect legislation. For most mining proponents, it increases the likelihood of, but does not guarantee, timelier outcomes. It will not ensure that all proposed projects will be approved. It will reduce but not eliminate uncertainty,” wrote Pierre Gratton.
“However, if well implemented, Bill C-69 holds the promise of improving upon predecessor legislation for most mines and the status quo—and the status quo is not sustainable for Canada.”
More recently, the Athabasca Region First Nations—a Fort McMurray-area coalition that includes the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation, the Fort McKay First Nation, and the Mikisew Cree First Nation—is weighing in with its support for the bill.
“Look at the mess we are in now,” said Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam. “I am in favour of Bill C-69. And I am going to continue to lobby that the federal government impose it.”
“Coming out for or against Bill C-69 seems to suggest that you are for or against industry,” but “I don’t think that’s the message from this region,” added Mikisew Cree industry relations manager Dan Stuckless. “I think what you are seeing from this region is that there’s a level of support for responsible development.”
For water security analyst Natalija Vonjo, an organizer with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, the ultimate question for the Canadian Senate is whether environmental protection is a legitimate activity in the Anthropocene era.
“Ecological economists are suggesting that half the Earth be preserved for nature’s crucial life support systems. International climate scientists are suggesting we have just over 10 years to drive ‘unprecedented action’ on human-induced climate change,” she writes in a recent Hill Times opinion piece. “In tame contrast, environmental groups in Canada are calling to simply restore pre-existing protections with the passage of Bill C-69,” following the Harper government’s “infamous overreach” in 2012.
“Bill C-69 is not perfect environmental legislation precisely because it rounds out competing interests. Environmentalists have had to make compromises,” Vonjo writes. But “in the age of the Anthropocene, the era of out of sight, out of mind is long over. Times are changing, and our laws need to change with them. It is more important than ever to strengthen the ability of our institutions to respond to present and future threats to the very ecosystems that sustain our economy and way of life.”