Organizations hopeful that amendments will help new legislation improve its score
OTTAWA – With Parliamentarians in the midst of their study of Bill C-69 in committee, a coalition of environmental organizations has released a report card grading the federal government’s proposed Impact Assessment Act.
Experts representing eight leading Canadian environmental groups say the proposed Act merits a C- when graded against the “essential elements of next-generation environmental assessment (EA),” as described in the Guide for Reviewing the Environmental Assessment Bill released by the groups in January 2018.
“The government has set out some ambitious objectives for this bill, but several shortcomings must be addressed in order for the new Impact Assessment Act to meet those goals,” said Anna Johnston, Staff Lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law Association. “The Parliamentary Committee reviewing this bill has a lot of work ahead. We’re hopeful that amendments can be made to boost the government’s grade and ensure that the new law does a better job of protecting ecosystems, communities, the climate and Indigenous rights.”
The report card notes that while the proposed Act touches on many of the basic requirements of next-generation EA – including a focus on sustainability, meaningful public participation, and greater attention to regional and strategic assessment – many important aspects are missing from the bill. These shortcomings include a failure to recognize Indigenous authority, lack of requirements to ensure sustainability in decisions or after assessments, limited scope for assessing smaller projects, and a lack of clear criteria and accountability for decision-making.
Experts say one of the Act’s most significant shortcomings is the discretion left to federal Cabinet Ministers in implementing various aspects of the legislation.
“The proposed legislation purports to make a lot of big changes, but unfortunately, some of the best things in the bill are only optional,” said MiningWatch Canada spokesperson Jamie Kneen. “For instance, the Act allows for big-picture regional and strategic assessments to be conducted, but does not require them, or even create a fund to pay for them. And while it’s important that Indigenous rights and social, economic, and gender impacts are included in the assessment process, there are no legal bottom lines – they are just ‘factors to be considered’ in the final decision.”
The bill also doesn’t include specific requirements to reduce climate impacts.
“It’s nice that C-69 will require the ‘consideration’ of climate change, but it still leaves the door open for federal approval of high-carbon projects that are out of step with Canada’s climate targets,” said Patrick DeRochie, Climate & Energy Program Manager at Environmental Defence. “This includes fracking and in situ tar sands projects, which the government proposes to exempt from federal impact assessment altogether. Alignment of energy and industrial projects with Canada’s climate commitments is crucial to a sustainable future.”
“We have seen years of controversy over federal reviews of pipelines under the current rules. We’ve had to resort to the courts repeatedly to ensure the application of provincial law in order to protect beluga whales and and uphold public rights of participation for such projects. It is unacceptable that Bill C-69 still forbids collaboration with other jurisdictions – provincial or Indigenous – for pipelines, nuclear or offshore oil and gas projects,” said Karine Péloffy, legal counsel for the Quebec Environmental Law Centre.
In addition to enacting the Impact Assessment Act, Bill C-69 proposes replacing the National Energy Board with a new Canadian Energy Regulator, as well as introducing amendments to the renamed Canadian Navigable Waters Act. Environmental groups have expressed dismay about some of these other proposed reforms, such as the failure of the new Canadian Navigable Waters Act to restore lost protections for the vast majority of lakes and rivers in Canada.
The Impact Assessment Act has now been referred to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Environmental groups across Canada will be closely monitoring the progress of the bill, pressing for key amendments to be made before it becomes law.