Yesterday’s budget affirmed two things for me. One is that Ecojustice’s work to protect Canada’s species and ensure all Canadians have access to safe drinking water is making an impact. And two, that the federal government’s new vision for a Canada (fossil) fueled by oil and gas revenues seriously underscores the need for strong environmental laws if we hope to protect Canadians and the environment in the rush.

Let’s start with the good news. The federal government says it will spend $50 million over two years to implement the Species at Risk Act. Perhaps they’re taking their cue from several recent court decisions that affirmed Ottawa is legally bound to safeguard threatened and endangered wildlife, as well as the critical habitat they need to live.

The federal government’s promise to invest more than $330 million over the same time period to bring modern, functional water infrastructure to First Nations communities is also positive. In November, Ecojustice gave the government a failing grade for refusing to ensure that all Canadians, including First Nations, have access to clean, safe water. The promised cash is more than the government spent in 2010, although less than what is needed to meet its own standards, according to APTN.

Where the silver lining in yesterday’s budget starts to tarnish, though, is in the government’s plans to rapidly expand and export Canada’s oil and other natural resources. Under the banner of ‘Responsible Resource Development,’ the budget document describes significant investments aimed at speeding up the review process for “major economic projects” — including Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. But here are a few problems:

Smaller projects that would be exempt from review could still have serious negative effects on the environment, and contribute to bigger cumulative problems (as the courts have said on many occasions, harm to the environment is often “death by a thousand cuts”).
Enforcing hard timelines for a review, as the government plans to do, will limit the amount of data available. Some baseline conditions require more than 12 months of scientific data to be collected, meaning assessments would be incomplete. It could also hinder public participation, which takes time.

But the biggest problem is that environmental assessments simply aren’t meant to facilitate approvals for industrial development.

The role of environmental assessment, and environmental laws more generally, are to protect the health and security of our families and of nature. They’re meant to safeguard Canadians and the water, air and land we all depend on by preventing problems (like pollution and toxic contamination) before they start, and making sure industry is responsible for preserving the environment as part of the cost of doing business.

It’s too early to tell how exactly Canada’s environmental laws will be changed to facilitate faster project approvals. (Check out our backgrounder on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to read why environmental reviews are important and where we think they’re at risk.) Given that threats to fish or fish habitat are one of the most common triggers for environmental assessments, the Fisheries Act is highly vulnerable as the government seeks to reduce the length and rigour of these reviews.

As it stands now, the proverbial other shoe has yet to drop. Things will become clearer in coming weeks once the federal government tables more detailed legislation that describes how the budget will be implemented. (Which is another problem unto itself: Opposition groups have called on the government to put any changes to environmental legislation into a standalone bill that can be properly debated in the House of Commons).

Many groups expect that amendments to Canada’s environmental laws will result in less oversight of major projects, including megadams, mines and pipelines that impact our health and wellbeing. And that’s a concern not just for environmental groups, but for people across the country.

You can take action to stop the rollback of Canada’s environmental laws by signing this petition.