Conservatives to limit time for environmental reviews, including Northern Gateway

The Conservative government is taking aim at environmental reviews of major resource projects and will impose time limits on those reviews from 12 to 24 months.

In a briefing in the Ottawa budget lockup, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said, “The new timelines will apply to the Northern Gateway Pipeline.”

Currently, major resource projects can take as long six years to approve. Under the new rules the whole process will take no more than 24 months. Rosemary Barton of CBC said on air that the Gateway project will be now limited to 18 months, but there were no details when the 18 month limit actually starts.

Skeena Bulkley Valley NDP MP Nathan Cullen called the new limits “a rubber stamp that is not good for business or the environment,” noting that one major oil spill would wipe out any savings for government and industry for decades.

Cullen said limiting the Northern Gateway Joint Review proceedings “changes the rules of the game and opens it up to court proceedings. I’ve never heard of a government changing everything half way through. They’re rigging the entire process and they’re not ashamed of it.”

The changes to environmental assessment are, at the moment, expected to be part of the budget omnibus bill. Cullen said the Opposition will try to “hive it off” in the committee stage into a stand alone bill. He was not optimistic and noted that using budget riders to get unpopular measures into law was a common Republican tactic in the United States.

“The cost of approving bad projects is going to cost us multiple times more,” Cullen said. “For example, we used to approve projects with hardly any review at all and we are still paying about 170 million dollars in Yukon for bad mines that were approved without anybody doing any science. The idea that you can short cut this things and it won’t cost in the end, is insanity.”

Cullen pointed to $80 million in cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, will cut the already under resourced DFO monitoring of the fisheries, at the time that the Harper government is accelerating the Northern Gateway project. While the Canadian Coast Guard will get $5.2 billion over 11 years, Cullen noted that this money will go for new ships and there are unlikely to be any increases in the operational budget.

There appear to be no changes in the budget to the habitat provisions of the Fisheries Act, unless it is buried in the fine print. In his interview with the CBC, Flaherty called some provisions of the Fisheries Act aimed at preserving habitat as “ridiculous,” repeating the story about a flooded farmer’s field in Saskatchewan.

Flaherty said “It’s anticipated there will be $500 billion investment in mining and oil, minerals in the next ten years. That’s an incredible opportunity. We can blow it, but that would be ridiculous. one study, one project, one review. ”

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers welcomed the government move to speed up environmental reviews  saying:

[T]he plan to improve Canada’s regulatory process for natural resource projects will generate more jobs and a stronger Canadian economy while ensuring continued environmental performance, Canada’s upstream oil and natural gas producers said today.

“Broad-based regulatory reform is fundamental to attracting investment that creates Canadian jobs, prosperity and economic growth,” said Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers President Dave Collyer. “The government’s plan will improve the timeliness and efficiency of the decision-making process while the regulatory scrutiny that Canadians expect remains intact…”

The upstream petroleum industry is the largest single private sector investor in Canada – investing over $50 billion each year and employing more than 500,000 Canadians. Regulatory bottlenecks in the current system have often led to project delays or outright cancellations due to missed market opportunities, with a resultant reduction in economic benefits that would flow from these delayed or foregone investments.

“The changes broadly outlined in the federal budget will improve our business climate and competitiveness without compromising our commitment to responsible, sustainable development,” Collyer said.

The environmental movement was quick to disagree. The BC based Wilderness Committee said in a release

Corporations and polluters could reap the rewards of today’s federal Budget and the follow-up legislation, which will weaken the environmental assessment process.
The Budget includes major cuts to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and eliminates the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

The changes to the environmental assessment process explicitly aim to help speed up approval of tar sands pipelines like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. This will put the Canadian people at increased risk of oil spills, polluted rivers and fish kills, as well as lost wildlife.

“Energy giant Kinder Morgan had said they would formally submit their application to the National Energy Board to twin their tar sands pipeline by the end of this month, but now they’ve delayed,” said Ben West, the Wilderness Committee’s Healthy Communities Campaigner. “It seems to me that Kinder Morgan could be waiting to take advantage of a weakened review process,” said West.

The West Coast Environmental law group which has opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline said in an e-mail to the media

Today’s budget announcements make it clear that long-standing legal protections for the environment, including environmental reviews of major industrial projects like mines and oil pipelines will soon be rolled back or eliminated.

For decades, Canadians have depended on the federal government to safeguard our families and nature from pollution, toxic contamination and other environmental problems through a safety net of environmental laws. Today?s budget would cut up this environmental safety net to serve the interests of a few big companies.

Canadians want strong environmental laws to protect our communities, ecosystems, health, and economy. Recklessly rushing approvals for major industrial projects like pipelines is not the same as building a sustainable economy. A robust, sustainable economy depends on a healthy environment. The multi-billion dollar clean up costs from the Exxon Valdez and the Gulf oil spill remind us that it is citizens who pay the price when things go wrong.

John Bennett, Executive Director of the Sierra Club Canada said:

“Environmental assessments need to be thorough, consultative and science-based. Creating hard-time limits and rushing the process compromises all these things.”

The changes will result in weaker environmental assessments and projects being approved without a full understanding of the social, economic and environmental impacts they will have.

“We have environmental assessment laws to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past. It is far better to identify problems and then improve a design than to breathe polluted air or clean up dead fish,” said Mr. Bennett.