Proposed changes to Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act could streamline and simplify the environmental approval process, much in-line with pledges already made by the federal Conservative government.
The 20 recommendations, set out in a report by the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, include eliminating duplicate environmental assessments, setting firm timelines for the assessment process and changing the criteria for requiring an assessment.
The federal Conservative government has long been pushing for such reforms, with Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver setting out similar priorities during a speech at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference just a week before the report was released.
“Our ultimate goal is one project, one review, completed in a clearly defined time period,” Oliver said in his conference address.
During his speech Oliver also noted that the Conservative government has already introduced set timelines as part of changes made to the Environmental Assessment Act in 2010, and gave the example of having B.C. conduct the environmental assessment of Teck Resources’ Line Creek coal mine expansion as a step towards provinces having more control over the process.
The elimination of duplicate assessments is one of the report’s main themes, with several recommendations dealing with coordinated permitting between federal and provincial governments and the delegation of assessments to provinces. The report specifically cited Thompson Creek Metals’ Mount Milligan mine in central B.C. and Columbia Yukon Exploration’s Storie molybdenum project in northern B.C. as examples of how requiring both a provincial and federal environmental assessment sometimes add many months to a project’s timeline.
The report, however, was conspicuously silent on the matter of Taseko Mines’ conflict-laden Prosperity gold-copper project in central B.C., which was approved provincially and then rejected federally following separate assessments.
The report also recommends switching to a list-based triggering process for environmental assessment rather than the current permit-based threshold, establishing binding timelines for assessments and giving ministers more power in approving projects.
Paul Cassidy, who has been practicing environmental law for 25 years, testified at the hearings as an individual and was quoted several times in the report. He said in a phone interview that the recommendations in the report could help improve the system.
“Generally I think the recommendations are pretty good, and if they’re enacted in amendments it should go some way to address some of those concerns that project developers in any sector have with the environmental assessment process in Canada.”
Opposition parties, however, have strongly objected to the contents of the report and the way it was prepared. In dissenting opinions, both the New Democratic and Liberal parties decried the potential reduction of consultations with Aboriginals and the general public, and the lack of attention to potential cumulative effects of projects. The Liberals also singled out increased ministerial powers as a concern and the NDP noted that the need for increased funding of the assessment agency was not mentioned.
Both opposition parties objected to the hearing process itself, which consisted of nine roughly two-hour meetings. The parties said not enough notice was given of the hearings and not enough witnesses were heard.
While declining to comment on procedural issues, Cassidy said that the opposition is exaggerating the environmental threat the recommendations pose. “Some of the concerns of the opposition parties are overblown. If the amendments are careful, the environmental process will be strengthened in Canada, not weakened,” he said.
“I’ve read all the evidence before the committee,” Cassidy continued, “and I didn’t see any witnesses suggesting that the legislation be weakened. There seemed to be a near-unanimous view that the legislation is needed, and rather the focus is on making it efficient without sacrificing environmental values, which I think is eminently doable.”