The federal government’s embattled Impact Assessment Act, Bill C-69, would actually deliver more credible project decisions, better consideration of economic factors, and more timely, effective consultations than its Harper-era predecessor, despite the relentless battering it has received from the Canadian fossil lobby, veteran impact assessment specialist Robert B. Gibson writes in a post for Policy Options.
C-69 has been “a favourite target” for the Trudeau government’s critics, Gibson notes. It’s currently mired in a Senate committee, at risk of dying on the order paper if it isn’t passed before Parliament shuts down for the federal election this fall.
“However, many of the criticisms and proposed responses ignore the actual content of the proposed new law, neglect lessons from unfortunate experience under the current law, and imagine that legislation even more narrowly focused on speedy approvals would do better,” he writes.
Directly contrary to those criticisms, C-69 would likely bring “more direct, comprehensive, open, and rigorous attention to economic factors in project assessments,” Gibson contends, introducing “more transparent and comprehensive examination of projects’ economic and other effects. Under section 63, decision-makers would have to determine the extent to which the assessed project would contribute to sustainability, the severity of effects on matters within federal jurisdiction (such as effects on fish and fish habitat, and environmental effects that cross provincial boundaries or go beyond Canada), appropriate mitigation measures, effects on Aboriginal/Indigenous rights, and effects on meeting Canadian environmental obligations and climate change commitments.”
By contrast, in Stephen Harper’s Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, “direct economic benefits enter only through the back door—under provisions that permit approval of projects with significant adverse environmental effects if they are ‘justified in the circumstances’.” That definition is left to the political will of the federal cabinet.
Speaking of politicized decisions, Gibson says C-69 hands most major decisions to “the political level”, primarily cabinet—just like its predecessor. “The new act’s advantages are constraints on these decision-makers,” requiring their rulings to be based on the results of public review and reported for public scrutiny. While the provisions in this area fall short of the recommendations of the Trudeau government’s own expert panel on impact assessment, “the new act is a step up from the current assessment law,” he writes.
And where the fossil lobby claims C-69 will slow down project approvals, Gibson notes that the existing law—tailor-made by the Harper government to speed new fossil fuel projects—has done exactly the opposite. “In the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain cases, the major delays resulted not from slow assessment but from a streamlined process that was not sufficiently consultative, comprehensive, and credible.”
He says C-69 could do a better job of addressing those concerns, but breaks important new ground by starting impact assessments earlier in project planning, setting more flexible and marginally shorter review timelines, providing for strategic and regional assessments to take on bigger issues, and allowing all interested parties to play some role in the process.
“The most heated criticisms of Bill C-69 have centred on possible delays and barriers for the bitumen extraction and pipeline sector,” Gibson notes. “To the limited extent that this sector’s troubles (low oil prices, constrained market access, slowing expansion, worsening climate change, etc.) can be attributed to the current assessment law, Bill C-69 should provide a process able to deliver more credible and broadly justifiable decisions. It would do so, however, within a sustainability framework that pays attention to long-term as well as short-term consequences.”
But troubling as that seems to be for the fossil lobby, Gibson notes that the Mining Association of Canada supports the bill. So “surely oil and pipeline projects should also be expected to meet C-69’s sustainability standard,” he concludes. “If proponents of these projects fear they cannot, their problems go well beyond what changes to C-69 can fix.”