The bill aims to reform a process that has become stuck due to complex approval routes and polarised interests.
The Canadian oil and gas industry has been stunted recently by a lack of infrastructure to get fuel to market. Disputes between stakeholders, local governments (notably Alberta and British Columbia) and public opposition have delayed new projects.
The bill, called the Impact Assessment Act, is intended to re-build public trust in the environmental assessments and clarify the process. The bill will replace the 2012 Environmental Assessment Act.
Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change said in a statement: “We heard from a wide range of Canadians that previous reforms to environmental laws put our environment, fish and waterways at risk and eroded public trust. We listened and took action to fix this. With better rules for major projects, our environment will be cleaner and our economy stronger. Making decisions based on robust science, evidence and Indigenous traditional knowledge, respecting Indigenous rights, and ensuring more timely and predictable project reviews will attract investment and development that creates good, middle-class jobs for Canadians.”
Two federal agencies will be reformed as part of the proposed changes. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is to become the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada and will lead federal reviews of major projects, and the National Energy Board will become the Canadian Energy Regulator. The bill contains a ‘one project, one review’ policy to minimise duplication of work and red tape.
Reduced processing times are a significant part of the bill. Review panels will have 600 days to assess projects (down from 720) and the cabinet will have 90 days to decide to approve the project or not. Agencies will have 300 days to submit their impact assessments (down from 365) and the Minister of the Environment will have 30 days to make a decision based on the assessment.
The impact assessments will cover a broader range of criteria, including effects on health, social and economic impacts as well as environmental concerns. The science behind the reports will be publicly available and indigenous traditional knowledge will be taken into account regarding the new infrastructure.
Prior to the assessment process, companies will be required to seek out public and indigenous stakeholders to try and resolve issues in a six month planning phase before applying for approval
New protections for water, water ways and fisheries are also a part of the package through amendments to the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Navigable Waters Act (currently called the Navigation Protection Act).
The federal government is to invest C$1 billion (€647 million) to fund the new assessment regime. It says that this is to bolster ‘scientific capacity’ in federal departments and increase indigenous and public participation in the approval process.
Responses to the bill have been mixed, with industry giving generally positive remarks and advocacy groups saying that it is a step in the right direction, but not enough.
The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) told The Canadian Press that they were pleased with the bill’s ‘one project, one assessment’ policy, but Tim McMillan, president of the CAPP, said that he wanted more specificity regarding the assessment process. The CEPA said in a press release that the bill created uncertainty in the industry due to ambiguity over how new policies will be implemented, but welcomed the opportunity to consult on the proposed changes.
However, the Canadian Environmental Law Association is sceptical about the bill, saying in a press release that ‘several aspects of the legislation require further amendment in order to ensure sustainability and to safeguard the public interest.’ This includes the ability of designated projects to escape the need for an impact assessment and the failure to define the term ‘significant adverse environmental effects’.
CELA Counsel, Richard Lindgren, said: “Unless the proposed Impact Assessment Act is substantially revised as it proceeds through Parliament, CELA concludes that the new [environmental assessment] process will not restore public trust or ensure credible, participatory and science-based decision-making”.