No red tape in green oversight, environment minister told
OTTAWA — Changes to environmental reviews of industrial projects in recent years are already "preventing process duplication," says an internal government presentation obtained by Postmedia News.
The Harper government has publicly argued reforms are necessary to Canada's environmental protection laws because of too much duplication in reviews at the federal and provincial levels that cause delays, but the internal document, prepared by the Canadian Environmental Assessment (CEA) Agency last fall, for a joint presentation that was to be delivered by Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver to Conservative MPs, suggested duplication was no longer a significant problem.
"Amendments made in 2010 have made the CEA Agency responsible for most comprehensive studies; this change is yielding positive results as all agency-led comprehensive studies have started in alignment with provincial reviews, preventing process duplication," said the presentation, dated Sept. 6, 2011 and released by Environment Canada through access to information legislation.
"All provinces have EA (environmental assessment) processes; harmonization agreements and project-specific arrangements are intended to prevent duplication."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday his government's proposed changes were meant to ensure decisions to approve projects are made "within a reasonable time period" of up to two years.
"It's still a very thorough assessment, but it is important that we not duplicate our work and that we are able to give certainty to investors about the timelines for decisions," Harper said in the House of Commons, in response to a question from NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.
The NDP's deputy leader and environment critic Megan Leslie said her party supports making improvements to the environmental assessment process, but suggested Kent had given his colleagues and the general public old information about what needed to be fixed.
"It's pretty amazing that the minister has not only been giving incorrect information to his caucus, but the public at large, because he keeps talking about duplication within the environmental assessment system and how that duplication needs to be eliminated," Leslie said in an interview. "But clearly, the agency is saying a lot of the duplication issues have been managed."
Kent also disputed warnings made at parliamentary hearings on the budget from the government's environment watchdog, Scott Vaughan, who suggested the proposed federal changes would reduce the number of federal reviews from thousands of evaluations to a few dozen per year.
But the internal presentation reflected recent observations by Quebec Premier Jean Charest, also a former federal environment minister, who said the existing system works well in his own province, and he was "intrigued" by suggestions it is not working well elsewhere.
"We are big believers in our assessment process," Charest said on May 1 at an Ottawa conference on sustainable development. "I have learned, through my experiences, that trying to short circuit to reduce the process will only make it longer, and it is better to have a rigorous, solid process. It gives a better outcome, and for those who are promoting projects, it will give them more predictability than if not."
The federal government has proposed to weaken several Canadian environmental laws in its budget implementation legislation.
The budget bill also proposes to scrap Canada's existing environmental assessment legislation, replacing it with a new law that would give the federal minister the power to decide when to conduct reviews of the environmental impacts of a new industrial project.
The existing legislation requires an automatic review of any project that triggers laws protecting water, fisheries, and endangered species among other provisions. This existing federal environmental oversight would also be rewritten under the budget legislation.