New Environmental Assessment Rules Announced
Last month, I wrote about changes to environmental regulations that the Canadian federal government was planning to add to its budget. On April 19th, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver decided to announce the changes regarding environmental assessments of oil and mining projects at, of all places, a pipe making factory (as in pipes for oil pipelines).
As part of the new rules, environmental assessments will have a strict time limit of 24 months. The goal, of course, is to speed up the process in hopes of having projects on-line as quickly as possible. However, such a “one-size-fits-all” time limit is not necessarily good for environmental protection. I remember a university professor making a comparison between environmental assessment and renovating a home: A contractor says it’ll take 24 months to do the renovations on your house. But, as he starts to tear the walls apart, he notices that you have asbestos for insulation and your wiring dates back to the early 1900s. That means there is more work to be done, and say goodbye to your 24-month deadline. Likewise, there are ecosystems that are more complex than others, where mining or oil exploration could have impacts that we do not fully understand yet (a perfect example would be the Gulf of St-Lawrence where oil companies want to drill). In such complicated situations, the timeline would need to be extended. But, that isn’t an option under the new rules.
The federal government also decided to eliminate the duplication of environmental assessments – situations where one environmental assessment was done at the provincial level and one at the federal level. In theory, that’s not a bad idea either. However, under the new rules, that responsibility will now be given to the provinces (exceptions being major pipelines that are more than 40 km long and mines that affect inter provincial waterways). There are two problems with this rule change. First, many provinces do not have the resources (financial or trained manpower) to do environmental assessment. Second, the idea than any oil pipeline’s impacts, or any mine’s impacts are strictly limited to provincial borders is ridiculous. Like the saying goes, “we all live downstream”. These assessments should be done at the Federal level by trained scientists guided by a strong, national policy of environmental protection, considering the potential effects of these projects on the entire nation. But, that’s not going to happen.
The next major rule change was actually not part of the federal budget and was only posted on the government’s website. As it stands, the National Energy Board (NEB) of Canada only sends to the federal Cabinet its decision on pipelines that it has approved. That rule will be changed so that all pipeline decisions, whether approved or not by the NEB, will be sent to Cabinet. And that Cabinet will have the final say on whether a pipeline is built or not. In other words, if a federal government (such as the current Conservative government) really wants a pipeline built, it can now disregard the recommendations of the NEB and have the Cabinet approve that pipeline’s construction.
And, finally, the federal government has seen fit to limit the influence and participation of environmental groups. Under the new rules, organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Sierra Club of Canada will be barred from testifying at environmental assessment hearings unless they live in the area affected by the project. For example, the David Suzuki Foundation, which is based in BC, would not be allowed to get involved in the proposed offshore oil project in the Gulf of St-Lawrence. Environmental groups are often the strongest voice of science-based opposition to major mining and oil exploration. They give us a different perspective on such projects, a perspective that Canadians need to hear in order to make informed decisions. But, making informed decisions is not the goal here.
Neither is environmental protection. These new rules are about allowing oil, gas and mining companies access to Canadian resources as quickly as possible. It is about growing our economy on the backs of future generations that will have to deal with the mess that we leave behind. Today is a great day for construction companies, pipe making companies, oil and gas companies and mining companies. The rest of us should be very concerned.