Ottawa Overhauls Environmental Assessment Process


Ottawa to scrap National Energy Board, overhaul environmental assessment process for major projects

Liberals say they will also announce new protections for oceans, lakes and rivers

By John Paul Tasker, CBC News Posted: Feb 08, 2018 4:00 AM ET

The federal Liberal government says it will streamline the approval process for major natural resources projects, scrapping the National Energy Board and empowering a new body to conduct more extensive consultation with groups affected by development.

The changes are part of the largest overhaul of Canada's environmental assessment process in a generation.

The changes come after years of criticism that the National Energy Board, the regulator that weighs approval for construction of projects such as pipelines, was ill-suited to conduct environmental assessments or carry out the Crown's duty to consult with Indigenous peoples.

To that end, the new legislation, Bill C-69, creates the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to carry out review of all major projects in this country, to assess not just the environmental considerations, but also health, social and economic impacts, as well as effects on Indigenous peoples, over the long term.

The government is using the tagline "One project. One assessment" to reflect its intention to ditch the overlapping assessments that are currently required for some projects.

"The legislation we are introducing today aims to restore public trust in how the federal government approves major projects like mines, pipelines and hydro drams. These better rules are designed to protect our environment, while improving investor confidence they will also make the Canadian energy and resource sectors more competitive," Environment Minister Catherine McKenna told reporters in Ottawa Thursday.

The new agency will have set timelines for the review of projects a maximum of 300 days so that they can be carried out in a "timely manner."

The agency will also hear from groups that have long said the existing hearing process is too restrictive and didn't allow environmentalists or Indigenous peoples to have their say.

The existing "standing test," which dictates just who can participate during the regulatory review process, will be scrapped to give members of the public the chance to speak.

The legislation demands the agency consider impacts on Indigenous rights and culture in the decision-making process. The federal government will provide financial support to allow for more substantive Indigenous participation.

The National Energy Board will be replaced by the Canadian Energy Regulator (CER), a body that will be tasked with regulating pipelines, and the traffic, tolls and tariffs relating to the transmission of oil and gas through pipelines.

While the Impact Assessment Agency will conduct the impact assessment and co-ordinate consultations of major projects, the new CER would retain regulatory functions.

'We know won't satisfy everyone'

The government will invest up to $1.01 billion over five years to support the new impact assessment regime and Canadian Energy Regulator and will bolster scientific capacity in federal departments and agencies.

Despite the new process, McKenna said the federal cabinet will retain its right to approve projects it feels are in the national interest, even if an assessment process determines a project could cause certain environmental, health, social and/or economic effects a substantial power that essentially gives the federal government a veto.

"We know we won't satisfy everyone," McKenna said. "Those who distrust business will say we're doing too little. [But] Canadians want a modern environmental regulatory system that protects the environment, supports reconciliation with Indigenous people and attracts investment."

McKenna said the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper made decisions based on "politics" rather than science.

"This lack of trust in resulted in polarization and paralysis, projects stalled and resource development became a lightning rod for public opposition and court challenges raising concerns of investors and shareholders," McKenna said.

"Ironically their changes made it a lot more difficult to get projects approved."

The government announced Thursday that it will reverse Harper-era changes to the so-called "projects list," a list of proposed developments that could have the greatest potential for adverse environment effects and thus require further scrutiny.

Under the Harper government, McKenna said the process of putting a project on this list was secretive and arbitrary. While she vowed changes, the government said it will engage in further consultations on how to make the list more "robust."

With files from the CBC's Margo McDiarmid