On the heels of the 2012 budget speech, the federal government unveiled details yesterday of its plan to roll back environmental protections in Canada, which includes sweeping changes to the regulatory process used to scrutinize major industrial projects.
Here are three ways the changes are a problem for Canadians and the clean water, air and land we all depend on:
1) Shutting down our right to participate in decisions that affect us
The government will limit participation in the regulatory hearings to only those who are “directly affected.” This is problematic when we consider how narrowly the “directly affected” test has been applied in Alberta at the provincial level. For example, some people who could be harmed by sour gas flaring are arbitrarily shut out of hearing processes and do not receive notice of poisonous flares.
In a free and democratic society like Canada, citizens have the right to speak up and be heard when decisions that affect them are being made. You don’t need to live directly along the proposed pipeline path to be affected by a project that has as big a scope as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. We all share the same air, water and land.
2) Less accountability for protecting our environment
Under the guise of “streamlining” and to speed up review for industrial projects, the federal government says it will a) let the provinces review major industrial projects where possible, b) let small projects go ahead without a review and c) reduce regulatory oversight from 40 agencies to three.
All of this amounts to a lot less responsibility for managing our environment.
Deferring reviews to the provinces will land harmful projects in a patchwork of provincial environmental laws, many of which are weaker than federal laws. For example, in B.C., the province approved a controversial gold mine project. A federal review panel however, rejected the same proposal, saving nearby Fish Lake from being permanently destroyed. Meanwhile, in Ontario, provincial assessments are not required for private projects. This means that a federal review is the only way to regulate projects like the Darlington nuclear expansion. And, in Alberta, there is no comprehensive scheme for assessing the huge impact of the oilsands. Less federal oversight means serious gaps, more harm to the environment and to our communities.
Lastly, reducing regulatory oversight from 40 agencies to just three removes the experts from the process. And those that remain are having budgets axed, like the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which is facing a 43 per cent budget cut. In essence, the Agency is losing the funding and support from other agencies that it needs to do its job effectively.
3) Stripping independent bodies of their decision-making power
The federal government has openly stated that it doesn’t like a lot of things to do with the ongoing hearings on the Northern Gateway project. But perhaps the biggest obstacle is that if the National Energy Board (NEB) rejects the project, there isn’t a lot the government can do about it — under the current legislation, that is.
The NEB evaluates major energy projects to ensure that they are in the public’s best interest, meaning its decisions are based on hard facts and science — not the politics of the day. But the changes announced yesterday will strip the NEB of its decision-making power, leaving the final decision to approve or reject a project in the hands of Cabinet. The problem with this is that politicians lack the objectivity, or the expertise to gather, synthesize and analyse the vast amount of scientific data that must be considered when examining the merits and weaknesses of major energy projects.
By changing the rules now, the federal government is trying to bulldoze through potential opposition to ensure mega-pipeline projects like the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion go through as they wish.
In 2011, Forbes rated Canada the best place to invest in the world, noting Canada’s “lack of red tape” as a key factor in its high score. Sweden — which has some of the world’s most comprehensive environmental regulations — was deemed the most innovative.
What kind of Canada do you want? One that prioritizes industrial development over people, or one that finds innovative ways to grow its economy in balance with nature?
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