Tories rigged environment committee to gut review process: opposition

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Waste is pumped into a tailings pond in the Alberta oil sands in September, 2010. (Nathan VanderKlippe/Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)

The Conservative-dominated Commons environment committee recommends downloading much of the job of environmental assessment to the provinces and imposing timelines so the development of projects like pipelines and the Alberta oil sands won’t be delayed.

That advice is contained in a report for the government, which is prepared to make revisions to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. But opposition MPs say it will provide “handy messaging” as the Conservatives cut corners and costs to push through projects with less oversight.

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Michelle Rempel, the Calgary MP who is parliamentary secretary to the Environment Minister, told reporters Tuesday the 20 recommendations laid out in the report focus on “pragmatism.”

It is a matter of “ensuring that Canada’s natural heritage is protected while improving the efficiency of the bureaucratic processes that surround environmental assessment in our country,” Ms. Rempel said of the committee’s work, which was conducted largely behind closed doors.

In its present form, the environmental review process can cause delays and lead to lost economic opportunities, she said – “a particularly important fact given that major energy and mining projects represent as much as $500-billion dollars in potential investment over the next decade.”

One of the recommendations is that a federal environmental assessment would not be conducted in situations where a province is doing a similar study.

In November 2010, former environment minister Jim Prentice vetoed a proposed mine near Williams Lake in the B.C. Interior citing significant adverse environmental effects that included turning Fish Lake – once featured in a tourism campaign – into a tailings dump. The project had been approved by the provincial government in British Columbia.

When asked how the report’s recommendations would affect that sort of situation, Ms. Rempel did not provide a direct answer. When pressed repeatedly, she replied: “The project recommends a one-project, one-review process.”

Both the New Democrats and the Liberals on the committee wrote dissenting reports that say the recommendations would significantly weaken environmental oversight.

Megan Leslie, the NDP environment critic, said “The report did not meet an acceptable standard for what a legislative review should look like.”

The committee, she said, did not provide sufficient notice that a study was being carried out which meant many key witnesses did not take part. It held just nine meetings on this issue, which meant many important stakeholders were not heard from including the National Energy Board, the Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development and, she said, aboriginal input was limited to 10 minutes.

One of the recommendations comes straight from a Conservative member of the committee rather than witnesses and experts, Ms. Leslie added. “What that says to me is this is a partisan document and not a parliamentary document.”

Elizabeth May, the Leader of the Green Party, said she asked to testify before the committee but was denied a chance to appear.

There are many ways in which the report will undermine environmental assessment, Ms. May added.

For instance, when there are fixed timelines and the project’s proponent creates delays, the project will never be fully reviewed, she said. And, while some provinces have rigorous processes for environmental review, others are “laughable.”

The report will be used to justify the changes the federal government is already planning to make, Ms. May said, adding that the current system has created few delays for industry. “This is a disaster for environmental review in this country.”

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