IN THE NEWS ~ Opinion: Environmental assessments prevent problems

Environment Minister Peter Kent may deny his government has abandoned environmental protection, as he did in an opinion piece published in The Vancouver Sun Aug. 28, but the facts prove otherwise.

The new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA 2012), was rammed through Parliament as part of the omnibus budget bill. The budget repealed the existing act, and replaced it with an entirely new regime, which became law July 6, with accompanying regulations. There was no public comment period on draft regulations; instead the government relied on the advice of project proponents and industry groups.

Not only is this a reversal of long-standing government practice to consult broadly on draft regulations, it is entirely contrary to the fundamental principle of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which is — or was — to engage the Canadian public and to encourage and assist their participation in decision-making.

One of the primary problems is the change in the determination of what kinds of projects require an assessment. Instead of screening broad classes of projects to determine if there was a need for an assessment, we now have a narrow, prescribed list of projects and activities which will be assessed. If it’s not on the list, it’s not evaluated.

In testimony before the finance subcommittee on Bill C-38 (the omnibus budget bill), Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughn summed up the result of these changes: “What is clear is that there will be significantly fewer environmental assessments. The range is from 4,000 to 6,000 a year to probably 20 to 30 a year which will be under the federal regime.�

This is particularly troublesome, as eliminating environmental assessments puts the thousands of jobs that rely on a clean environment at risk. B.C.’s fisheries and tourism industries employ more than 40,000 people, and add an estimated $1 billion to the province’s economy annually.

What’s not on the list? There’s no longer a federal assessment of Teck Coal’s expansion of coal mining operations at Line Creek. Banks Island North Wind Energy Project’s federal assessment has been cancelled.

In fact, run of river hydro, gravel extraction, seismic surveys and testing, prescribed burns in national parks — none are on the list of projects that the federal government thinks deserve any scrutiny. Sure, the minister can designate other projects, but it will be cumbersome, time-consuming, bureaucratic and expensive for regulators — or the minister — to rectify omissions on a case-by-case basis.

The argument that other jurisdictions — provinces or municipalities — will step in to take over environmental assessments rings hollow, especially in light of a scathing report by the B.C. environment commissioner on the sorry state of the provincial environmental assessment regime.

The National Energy Board, which the minister claims can make up the slack for the cut environmental assessments, is under pressure by the government to deliver results that conform to Conservative policy.

The increased amount of influence that the government has over the NEB, as well as the fact that the government can at any time override the findings of the board, show that independent environmental assessments are needed more than ever.

Environmental assessment is meant to be a preventive measure, a look-before-you-leap tool.

Contrary to the minister’s assertions, the Harper government is not open to public input. It has, however, undertaken limited, hasty, exclusive consultations with certain hand-picked groups to solicit possible amendments to the regulations.

While New Democrats welcome that the government has clearly recognized that improvements to their rushed regulations are both urgent and necessary, we have called on the minister to conduct meaningful, Canada-wide public consultations on the CEAA 2012 regulations this fall.

Peter Julian is the MP for Burnaby-New Westminster and the NDP energy and natural resources critic.


© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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