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Ottawa says significant changes are needed to achieve an “efficient, effective and truly harmonized” federal environmental assessment process
In an effort to improve the “timeliness” of federal assessments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), Ottawa appears ready to abrogate its oversight role in favour of any province that provides equivalent assessments. Responsibility for conducting larger screenings should be assigned to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, unless another regulator is better suited to perform that role. The Minister of the Environment should be provided “more authority with respect to major projects,” although details on what that authority may be have not been released.
These and a number of other wide-ranging recommendations are contained in the controversial report Protecting the Environment, Managing Our Resources, released March 14, 2012. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development held a series of hearings and in camera meetings last fall and earlier this year as part of its statutory seven-year review of CEAA. The proposed changes would build on provisions in the Jobs and Economic Growth Act, July 2010, which streamlined the comprehensive study process for larger projects.
The Report proposes dropping the requirement that federal EAs consider alternatives to a proposed project. The stated rationale, that project proponents have already considered all alternatives and are presenting the project alternative with “the best business case.” reflects the priority for economic growth and job creation. Reflecting a heightened reliance on the provinces and project proponents, the Report advocates removal of the requirement to assess impacts on renewable resources. One committee member stated, “Furthermore, no project proponent would or could submit a project that is either outside the terms and conditions of provincial natural resource management policies, or was outside the realm of the sustainability of the renewable resource base”.
The Establishing Timelines for Comprehensive Studies Regulations, which came into force in June 2011 for CEA Agency-managed comprehensive studies, had already begun to reduce delays in the federal process. However, the committee suggested that timelines should be set not just for the EA itself, but also for “related procedural steps from the application through public participation to final authorizations.” While agreeing that EA provides an effective means of integrating environmental factors into planning and decision-making, many interveners appearing before the committee
Recommendations of Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development insisted that significant changes in the federal process were needed. The standing committee agreed that the EA process needs to be more efficient, especially as a number of provinces have implemented their own streamlined EA regimes. “Clearly time is money, but [EA delays] may also affect whether or not a project proceeds, the result of a finite investment window for some projects,” the committee concludes. “Proponents need certainty that an EA process will be done in a reasonable and, if possible, defined period of time.”
The recommendations of the committee were not unanimous. Citing the ambiguous evidentiary focus and the restricted scope of the review process, both the Liberal and NDP members of the standing committee opted to append a dissenting opinion to the report. The NDP noted that although the federal government intends to make sweeping and substantial changes to the regulatory approvals system for major resource projects, no details were brought forward to the committee as part of the CEAA review. They called for “proper, Canada-wide consultation” before any changes are made to CEAA.