You call that an environmental assessment?

November 1, 2012

By the time this column is published, I will have completed a midterm in my Environmental Impact Assessment course. As I write my first draft, I’m studying my course material and relating it to the real world. Unfortunately, things in the real world are not looking particularly good.

The Harper Government are “streamlining” environmental laws. I believe they are being pulverized. I interpret the changes to the Environmental Assessment Act as a blatant purge to give room to the big oil companies so they can rapidly do as they please (consider the controversy of the Keystone project in B.C.).

As it was, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 1992  existed to promote sustainable development across Canada and prevent environmental degradation before it occurs. The main purpose of an environmental assessment is to carefully consider the long-term impacts of a potential project, then planning a strategy for the next step. The key steps are planning, construction, operation and decommissioning. Each step must be carefully planned to minimize environmental impact.

Introduced as part of a massive omnibus budget bill last spring, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012  wipes out and replaces the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 1992 with a much weaker version.  It imposes hard deadlines on environmental assessments, modifies and skews the assessment process, significantly reduces the number of responsible authorities, gives Cabinet a  greater role, introduces deadlines,  and imposes penalties for non-compliance, and narrows the requirements for public participation.

CEAA 2012 switches from a “trigger” approach, where an assessment is automatically required when certain conditions are met, to a “project list” approach. An assessment will only required for projects included in a list of “designated projects.”

For projects that must undergo an environmental assessment, it will no longer be required to assess the impacts of a project on renewable resources. The environmental effects considered will be limited to matters of federal jurisdiction, which includes fish, endangered aquatic species, migratory birds, projects on federal lands and effects on Aboriginal people.

As I am learning, environmental assessments are very complex. Imposing an inflexible deadline could result in an incomplete assessment. Under the new Act, very short timelines are given for the initial screening decision to be completed: 45 days after uploading the proposal. The actual assessment must be completed within 365 days, or if referred to a review panel, within 24 months. These deadlines can be extended up to three months by the Minister or longer by order of Cabinet.

Under the new Act, participation in assessments undertaken by the National Energy Board or review panels would be limited to any “interested party”. This includes those that are determined to be “directly affected” by the project or to have relevant information or expertise. Public participation in consultations has been reduced. The original Act had ensured that the public be given the opportunity to participate in review panel hearings.

I have to get back to the books (it’s November already!), but keep in mind that the new Environmental Act substantially weakens the federal environmental assessment process.  Fewer projects will have to, or be able to, complete a full environmental assessment. When assessments do occur, they will be pushed along faster, resulting in an truncated process.

Link to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

  • Gwen

    Thanks, Ian…keep up the good work!

  • Tim P.

    Good article Ian! By including changes to the Environmental Assessment Act (and numerous other Acts) within an omnibus budget bill, it seems like the Harper Conservatives are hoping to minimize public awareness and discussion, as well as avoid a proper review by the appropriate parliamentary committees.

    I did notice one small error in this piece – the existing Keystone pipeline (Phase 1 went online in 2010, Phase 2 in 2011) currently runs from Alberta to Oklahoma, and the proposed Keystone XL project would extend it to the Texas Gulf Coast. I expect that you may have been thinking of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is supposed to carry oil sands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat, BC.