By Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun, Postmedia News, April 27, 2012
Critics say protection for fish habitat 'eliminated' in bill to appease businesses
The Harper government unveiled a budget-implementation bill Thursday that includes Fisheries Act amendments that would strip the term "habitat" from the most crucial section of the law. Accusations that the government is giving in to demands from energy and mining lobbyists are false, said Erin Filli-ter, spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield.
"These are changes being made in our department that are designed to help Canadians - everyday Canadians: landowners, municipalities, farmers - be able to undertake activities on their properties without obtrusive interference by our department." But opposition critics and environmental groups say the government is misleading the public. They say the bill is designed to appease the natural resource sector.
"The legal protection for fish habitat has been completely eliminated," said Jessica Clogg, executive director and senior lawyer for West Coast Environ-mental Law in Vancouver.
New Democratic Party fisheries critic Fin Donnelly said Ashfield is not being honest when he insists corporate lobbying had nothing to do with the changes.
"They are trying to hide these changes from the Canadian public," Donnelly said.
The new legislation says the government is eliminating the key provision in the act - section 35 (1), which says "no person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat."
The new wording reads that "no person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or to fish that support such a fishery."
The government defines "serious harm" as "the death of fish or any permanent alteration to, or destruction of, fish habitat."
And the minister will make decisions on allowing harm to fish based on their "contribution - to the ongoing productivity of commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries." Critics say the government is changing the law to make it easier for companies to advance major projects such as Calgary-based Enbridge Inc.'s proposed $5.5-billion oilsands pipeline to the B.C. coast.
The pipeline would cross an estimated 1,000 waterways and Ashfield acknowledged some of them won't fit the definition of a stream that is part of any of the three protested fisheries.
Enbridge has complained about "onerous" requirements imposed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, according to internal documents released under the Access to Information Act. But Ashfield said earlier this week he wasn't swayed by the company's concerns.
"No, Enbridge lobbying did not influence this decision," he told The Vancouver Sun.
The company "has certainly never influenced me in any way, shape or form. I've never sat down with Enbridge, I've never had any discussions with Enbridge."
While the federal lobbyist registry shows no meetings between Enbridge and Ashfield since he became fisheries minister, records do show the company has been busy.
Chief executive Pat Daniel, for instance, lobbied Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, in December on the company's push for "regulatory streamlining - seeking improved efficiencies in the government secondary permitting processes for department of fisheries and oceans permits."
And David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, met last month with Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver over a proposal to "repeal" the Fisheries Act and create new fisheries legislation.
Ashfield has also had meetings with others interested in the impact of Fisheries Act regulations on their companies.
Kinder Morgan Canada Inc. lobbyist Brian Klunder met in late January with Ashfield and the minister's chief of staff, Fred Nott, to discuss "energy policy relating to pipeline development." Kinder Morgan recently announced it is seeking National Energy Board approval to expand capacity of its pipeline system from Alberta to Burnaby.
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