Thursday, June 23, 2016

Restoring Faith In Environmental Assessments

By the time Stephen Harper left office, no one believed a word of any environmental assessment issued by the federal government. Jason MacLean writes:

In 2012 the Harper government gutted the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the National Energy Board Act, the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Thousands of natural resources projects were exempted from assessments of their potentially significant adverse environmental effects.

Energy projects — including politically charged pipeline proposals — were subjected to far narrower reviews with radically restricted public participation. Fish habitats have been put in serious jeopardy, with 99 per cent of Canada’s rivers and lakes left unprotected.

Summing up the state of Canadian environmental law following the controversial 2012 omnibus amendments, Devon Page, the executive director of Ecojustice, frankly observed that “Canada has some of the worst environmental laws in the world.”

The Trudeau government has declared that it will review all environmental assessment procedures:

Building on its interim measures announced earlier this year, it will appoint expert panels to review the key environmental laws gutted in 2012. They will report back in January 2017, have a mandate to rebuild trust in environmental assessment processes, modernize the National Energy Board and introduce safeguards to the Fisheries Act and Navigation Protection Act.

The government has before it a Herculean task, given the cynicism that Harper left in his wake. For the review to be successful, Maclean writes, three things must happen:

First, the government’s review truly has to be an overhaul, not merely a touch up. With just over 1,000 days until the next election, the government may be tempted to do the bare minimum to declare victory. At a recent meeting of leading environmental assessment practitioners and scholars, for example, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change asked whether there was anything “worth keeping” in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012. The answer, no matter how politically inconvenient, is no.

Second, the fundamental assumption underlying environmental assessment must shift from how a proposed project will proceed to whether it proceeds at all. And the way to answer that question is not by mitigating adverse biophysical impacts, but by assessing whether a project will make a net contribution to sustainable development and decarbonization, thereby helping us meet our Paris climate change commitments.

Finally, the government says that public consultation will be the core of its review. It promises a co-ordinated, open and transparent process based on scientific evidence, working in partnership with indigenous peoples, provinces and territories and input from the public, industry and environmental groups. 

Getting agreement on expansion of the CPP took considerable effort. But it will be much more difficult to restore faith in the government's ability to conduct objective environmental assessments.

Image: Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press


Toby said...

Owen, I never see the difficulty in reversing the stuff that Harper did. Just do it. We had the rules and regulations; reinstate them. Mincing about, tweaking wee bits, accomplishes nothing.

If there was a button I could push to undo absolutely everything that Harper did I would push that button.

Owen Gray said...

It would be nice to just push a button, Toby. But dealing with -- and changing the law -- takes time.

Toby said...

Owen Gray said... , "It would be nice to just push a button, Toby. But dealing with -- and changing the law -- takes time."

Why? We have records of what the laws and regulations were. Replacement should be simple and straight forward. There really hasn't been a long time involved. It is not as if going back would mean we all had to ride donkeys and live in thatch huts. The rules and regs immediately preceding Harper were reasonably up to date and could be dropped back into place.

My impression is that the Harper/Neo-Liberal bureaucracy is determined to hold onto as much of Harperism as possible. I also think that Trudeau Jr. is much closer to Harper in practice than his cheerful personality would suggest.

Owen Gray said...

As I said in an earlier comment, Toby, the big money still calls the shots. And they'll work very hard to keep Harper's agenda in tact.