By CHRIS PLECASH, Hill Times, Nov. 28, 2011
NDP Environment Critic calls exercise a ‘farce,’ accuses government of already drafting legislative overhaul of EA process.
The House Environment Committee is winding down its statutory review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, a process that committee vice-chair and NDP environment critic Megan Leslie is calling a “farce,” accusing the government of already drafting legislation to overhaul the federal environmental assessment process.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which sets out the criteria and processes to assess the environmental impacts of development that receives federal approval, was amended in 2003 to require a committee review of the legislation on a seven-year basis.
Since beginning its review of CEAA on Oct. 20, the Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development has heard from a range of stakeholders on the need to amend the regulatory framework, including Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency president Elaine Feldman, and representatives from a range of industry, environmental, and aboriginal groups, including the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Ecojustice, and the Assembly of First Nations.
After nine two-hour meetings on the merits and shortfalls of CEAA, the committee is at the conclusion of the review process. The time constraints on the review process have led Ms. Leslie to question the usefulness of the hearings.
“We have these witnesses crammed on the witness list where they speak for ten minutes, we have a couple of rounds of questions, and everybody goes home,” observed Ms. Leslie, who vice-chairs the committee with Liberal environment critic Christie Duncan (Etobicoke North, Ont.), and Conservative MP and committee chair Mark Warawa (Langley, B.C.).
“I believe the government is already working on the act and what we’re doing in the committee is not going to have any impact on what we see,” Ms. Leslie added. “The government isn’t questioning environmental groups, they’re only questioning industry. They aren’t questioning native groups, they’re only questioning industry.”
The disparity between the number of questions that government MPs have asked of industry associations and the number of questions that have been asked of public interest groups has been noticeable throughout the review of the CEAA.
When Sierra Club of Canada executive director John Bennett appeared before the committee on Nov. 1, he used part of his opening statement to describe efforts to “streamline” environmental regulation through funding cuts as part of “a wider anti-democratic campaign to marginalize and eventually silence the voices of the environment in Canada,” but not before Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Centre-North, Alta.) raised a point of order that Mr. Bennett’s comments were “rhetoric-driven.”
“We’re interested in hearing fact-based testimony today, and we’d encourage the witness to do so as well,” Ms. Rempel reminded Mr. Bennett.
In his statement, Mr. Bennett highlighted the lack of public input into CEAA’s review, pointing out that his appearance came on the heels of the federal government’s decision in late October to end its funding to the Canadian Environmental Network.
“There has not been consultation with the stakeholders this time,” Mr. Bennett told the committee. “The decision to stop consulting environmental organizations and withdraw support for the CEN at precisely the time CEAA is being reviewed clearly is no coincidence. It sends a clear signal.”
Conservative MPs did take the opportunity to question the Sierra Club’s executive director on how CEAA could be improved, but the majority of questions from the government side of the committee were directed to representatives of the Canadian Water & Wastewater Association and the Canadian Electricity Association, who stressed the need for simplifying the environmental assessment process by eliminating the duplication of assessment steps by the federal government and the provinces.
There was a similar disparity between questions posed by government members to industry and those posed to public interest groups when representatives for the Assembly of First Nations appeared before the committee on Nov. 17.
“Let the AFN be very clear, First Nations are not opposed to development,” AFN strategist Roger Jones declared in his opening remarks to the committee. “In these cases, First Nations have already determined that development is entirely consistent with our obligations to the Earth and to our peoples.”
Mr. Jones went on to call for a more inclusive environmental assessment process that worked to reconcile First Nations’ rights with industry interests, including the establishment of a “Crown-First Nations process to reform CEAA.”
“The time and resources it takes to do so should be seen as an investment to get it right for all actors, rather than simply an exercise in First Nation engagement,” said Mr. Jones.
The two-hour long hearings on Nov. 17 were shared between representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Mining Association of Canada, and the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment.
AFN’s strongly worded opening statement was overshadowed by the presence of associations representing two of Canada’s largest industries. The overwhelming majority of questions from Conservative MPs were directed towards CAPP and MAC, while Liberal and NDP MPs the bulk of their questions towards AFN and the James Bay Advisory Committee.
However, Conservative MP and committee member James Lunney (Nanaimo-Alberni, B.C.) took exception to the suggestion that committee members from his party were only interested in hearing from industry.
“I directed questions myself to AFN and to the James Bay Council,” Mr. Lunney pointed out. “I think that it’s unfair to say that we have not engaged with other people at the table.”
Mr. Lunney specifically asked the James Bay Advisory committee for examples of mining projects that had brought development and employment to their region. He also asked the Assembly of First Nations how the controversial Prosperity Mine project on B.C.’s Fish Lake could gain the support of the area’s First Nations.
“If we start with ‘no’ as a beginning, how do we resolve issues like that, and is there a process? Is there going to be any hope of resolving this through process, without going to the Supreme Court,” Mr. Lunney asked the AFN representatives.
“[S]ometimes you have to look at it more broadly,” Mr. Jones responded. “That means you have to look at alternative options in terms of what is potentially available by way of economic development in that area. Is that the only one, or are there others that may in fact serve the needs and interests of everyone in that area?”
The Taseko Mines Ltd. gold and copper mining project failed to pass a federal environmental assessment under former Environment Minister Jim Prentice last November, despite having passed a provincial environmental assessment by the B.C. government. Earlier this month the company submitted a new plan to CEAA that would spare Fish Lake from mine tailings, but the area’s First Nations continue to oppose the project.
Mr. Lunney also defended the current committee review process for CEAA.
“It’s all about balance, but it’s a balance and people are coming around to the perspective that socio-economic values should be considered as well,” he told The Hill Times. “There has got to be better ways to coordinate a response so that we can accomplish what we’re setting out to do in terms of environmental protection and still not impair economic development and job creation.”
A number of issues with CEAA have emerged throughout the hearings. The act currently uses a “trigger” process to determine whether or not a project is subject to a federal environmental assessment. In CEAA’s present form, a project triggers an assessment if the federal government is the proponent of that project, or if the project receives some form of federal funding or assistance, utilizes federal land, or requires federal licences or permits. Under this criteria, installing a bench in a National Park requires some form of environmental assessment.
In Oct. 25 testimony Vancouver-based environmental lawyer Paul Cassidy suggested eliminating the trigger process for environmental assessments, replacing it with a defined list that bases assessments on the anticipated environmental impacts of a given project. Others have warned that such a framework would be unable to keep up with forms of development that have yet to come into existence.
Another issue that has dominated the hearings is the jurisdictional overlap between provincial and federal environmental assessments. The addition of a federal environmental assessment can add years to a project’s approval process.
In his Nov. 22 testimony, Saskatchewan Assistant Deputy Minister of Environment Mark Wittrup argued for a “one project, one assessment” approach to environmental assessments.
“Saskatchewan supports a vision that would redefine federal and provincial responsibilities in order to endow Canada with a system based upon a principle of one project, one assessment,” Mr. Wittrup told the committee. “Saskatchewan recommends CEAA acknowledge provincial environmental assessments as equivalent to a federal environmental assessment for all projects on provincial lands.”
While government members of the committee have focused their questions on how CEAA could be reformed to eliminate duplication between federal and provincial assessments and reduce assessment timelines, opposition members have focused on how CEAA can be made to improve public input into the process.
“If you watch the Conservatives, they are mimicking the exact language of the Environment minister about streamlining assessments for big energy projects,” Ms. Leslie told The Hill Times. “All the questions are directed to industry, and it’s basically ‘So, what do you want us to do?’”
In their 2011 election platform, the Conservatives promised to streamline the regulatory approval process for mining and energy projects, which could signal significant changes to how the federal government assesses future development.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.), who has followed the committee hearings closely, said that CEAA has been unfairly demonized by the government.
“The environmental assessment process is ideally a planning tool to get better projects at the end of the day,” said Ms. May, who has been. “The Conservative members are so misunderstanding the process that they’re treating it as though it’s the enemy, it’s red light/green light and they don’t want it. So they’re undermining the environmental assessment process.”
Ms. May submitted a request to appear before the committee to discuss CEAA, but she is unlikely to receive an invitation. Committee chair and Conservative MP Mark Warawa (Langley, B.C.) told The Hill Times that he expected the CEAA hearings to wrap up by Nov. 24.
Last week the Conservative members of the committee also voted to go in camera following Ms. Leslie’s motion to have Environment Minister Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) appear to review his department’s supplementary estimates prior to their Dec. 10 approval.
“Obviously I can’t tell you what happened in that meeting but I suspect that if you check the agenda for the coming week you’re probably not going to see the Minister on it,” Ms. Leslie said following the Nov. 22 meeting.
Mr. Lunney said that the committee had an obligation to review the supplementary estimates, but Mr. Kent’s appearance depended on scheduling. Ms. Leslie had moved to have the Environment Minister appear no later than Nov. 29.
“I think that some of the members are perhaps adjusting to the new reality of a majority,” said Mr. Lunney. “What we had in the last five years was not normal Parliamentary function, so there are some adjustments on the opposition side. When we were in opposition, when push came to shove we knew we might lose a vote, but in the meantime we tried to collaborate, communicate and do what we could to influence the agenda.”