Editorial, Vancouver Sun, February 16, 2012
Every major development project in British Columbia is subject to an environmental assessment before permits are issued allowing it to proceed. And this is as it should be.
We agree with the single process approach to environmental assessment, but so much of this editorial is motivated by the anti-regulation perspective on EA - which is, "get the effing EA out of my way and let me build my effing project."
That's the perilous track that both the single-process EA is on in Canada, and the national energy policy initiative. It's the mining industry and the petroleum industry and the Conservative government in Ottawa and the right-wing governments in some provinces who are writing the new CEA Act, and that's who will be writing a national energy policy.
Neither will emerge as enlightened vehicles to protect the environment or the public interest. Both will be designed to give industry the easiest, fastest, and cheapest shot at project implementation.
This editorial is in thrall with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO). When it was first introduced by Gordon Campbell in his last hurrah at lifting his leg over the fire hydrant of government organization, Watershed Sentinel published this illustration. It's as pertinent today, as it was at the beginning of 2011.
We need to know the impacts a project is likely to have on air, water and land in order to weigh those costs against the benefits development will bring.
While proponents invariably hope for approval, rejection can be useful if it points to ways to mitigate negative effects, providing an opportunity for a revised project to go ahead.
While a thorough review is necessary, a lengthy one is not. In B.C., there are applications for projects that have been caught up in the process for a decade or more.
Taseko Mine Ltd.'s Prosperity gold-copper mine project near Williams Lake, for example, has been in bureaucratic limbo for 17 years.
BC Hydro's Site C hydroelectric project has been on the books for two decades and has already cost the Crown agency - and by extension, us - more than $100 million.
The Jumbo Glacier ski resort has been in the works for 20 years; still no sod has been turned.
Because these projects, and many more like them, have been delayed, B.C. has been denied the public benefits they could bring in employment, economic growth and government revenue.
One of the biggest barriers to moving projects through the regulatory system more quickly is that they often require application of both federal and provincial assessment legislation.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, for instance, does not allow the federal government to fulfil its legal obligations entirely through a provincial environmental assessment process. The obvious solution to the problem is a single, integrated review process and both governments have voiced support for that goal.
In fact, the Canada-British Columbia Agreement on Environmental Assessment Cooperation provides a frame-work to achieve the objectives of "one project, one review" - specifically to reduce duplication while ensuring high environmental standards.
Although the agreement expired in 2009, the two governments continue to cooperate as if it were still in force. In any case, the agreement lacks the authority of legislation and it would take legislative change to truly bring about a merger of two processes into one. One of the significant outstanding differences between them is that B.C.'s has mandatory timelines, the federal process does not (although a 2010 amendment was intended to improve timeliness and, as it applies to B.C., synchronize federal reviews with provincial ones).
Before B.C. went on the hustings to preach the gospel of the "one project, one review," it had to put its own house in order.
Victoria has been paring a regime that involved nine different agencies, operating under 40 different statutes, governing roughly 1,200 different types of authorizations issued by a multitude of natural resource ministries to a one-stop shop under the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
The government also invested $24 million to reduce the backlog of land-use applications. Last month, Premier Christy Clark said a backlog of 229 mining notices had been cut to 85 and the government is on track to meet its commitment of an 80-per-cent reduction by September.
In a few weeks, the Parliamentary Committee on Environmental and Sustainable Development is expected to table a report, including its review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
During 2011, the committee heard suggestions from the provinces and other stakeholders on how to improve predictability, timeliness, public participation and environmental protection. Should it recommend a legislative change that would permit a single joint federal-provincial review for major projects, or for one party to assign the other the task of under-taking a review, or some combination depending on the project, the Conservative government should act expeditiously to make it happen.
Delays and uncertainty are discouraging business investment and depriving Canadians of the jobs and other benefits these projects could provide, if approved. It's time for "one project, one review" to graduate from rhetoric to reality.
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