By Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun, April 19, 2012
Green advocates with no expertise to be shut out
Environmental groups that don't have particular expertise to offer, and ordinary citizens concerned about projects like the Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline but who don't live or work near the project, shouldn't be able to participate in environmental review hearings, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Wednesday.
Oliver was defending his government's plan unveiled a day earlier to "strengthen environmental protection" by limiting participation only to members of the public who are "directly affected" by major projects.
"We don't see the need" to allow testimony from Canadians outside the project areas, or from environmental groups without specific expertise, Oliver said in an interview.
Oliver also defended the government's announcement Tuesday that it will let the federal cabinet overrule the Calgary-based National Energy Board, a quasi independent agency created by John Diefenbaker in 1959, on major projects considered to be in the "national interest" by Ottawa.
"The rationale is that for large projects that can have a national or regional impact of significance, both environment and economic, we believe the ultimate decision should be in the hands of elected officials and not appointed officials because ultimately through Parliament elected officials are responsible to the people."
Oliver said the government isn't undermining the integrity of the hearing process and suggested that a cabinet override of an NEB decision on Northern Gateway wouldn't necessarily be easy.
"Now you know, if one goes against a decision you have to consider the public's reaction to that of course."
Neither initiative was mentioned in Oliver's speech and his news release Tuesday, though they were cited in publicly-available background documents. Oliver said Wednesday his government wasn't trying to hide its plan to clip the NEB's wings as the final authority on major projects.
"Look, the whole legislative package is a complicated one and we wanted to emphasize the job creation aspect of it. We didn't high-light [the cabinet override] but we certainly didn't hide it."
The joint NEB-Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency process that began in January has involved testimony primarily from aboriginal Canadians in B.C. and Alberta living near Enbridge Inc.'s proposed pipeline route from the Edmonton area to Kitimat, B.C. on the West Coast.
However, the NEB has also heard from groups like the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation and the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union.
And during a four-month period starting in November the NEB had scheduled hearings for registered participants from cities outside the project area, including Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna and Port Hardy.
Green party leader Elizabeth May said the CEAA's "cornerstone" is public participation, yet the government's efforts are intended to severely limit that input.
"Many projects with significant environmental impacts may be located in remote locations," May said.
"Canadians are entitled to be concerned about fragile ecosystems in the Arctic or significant new sources of new pollution, even if they do not live in the immediate vicinity.
"Imagine if the government of Brazil said people living in Rio de Janeiro had no business expressing concern about the destruction of the Amazon. This pro-vision will make Canada a global laughing stock."
The government's actions on limiting the NEB's authority show a thumbs-up decision for Northern Gateway is a "forgone conclusion," May added.
The government announced sweeping measures Tuesday that will shorten the time frame for environmental reviews of natural resource projects.
Among the initiatives is a proposition that Ottawa will accept decisions from provincial governments that run their own project reviews. Ottawa will even give provinces the right to grant companies project authorizations under the federal Fisheries Act.
The government is also expected to water down the Fisheries Act to severely weaken provisions protecting fisheries habitat. The act is viewed by environ-mentalists as the federal government's top legislative weapon to protect the environment.
Oliver pointed out that cabinet already has the ability to override decisions from other federal bodies like the CEAA. He added that the U.S. government also has final authority over major project approvals.
"We're not telling the NEB what to say, we're not influencing their decision. They will come their decision independently, objectively, based on science. Then we will draw conclusions from it."
Oliver, who acknowledged that the NEB has only rarely turned down industry applications, added that cabinet won't be able to ignore conditions imposed on Enbridge by the NEB-CEAA panel, though it can ask the panelists to reconsider their recommendations.
"We're not undermining the integrity of the process."
Oliver said the government won't set strict rules on who can or can't participate in hearings, but said there's no need for people "who don't physically live or work near the pipeline" or who "have no particular expertise" to be allowed time to testify.
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