OTTAWA—The Liberal government doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel as it seeks to overhaul the system for assessing and approving major resource projects, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was told this week.
Canada, in fact, has pioneered some world-leading examples of how to combine environmental, social, cultural and economic impacts under a single project assessment, experts said at a three-day summit that wrapped up May 3.
The problem is that those best examples don’t look much like the current system, which is mired in public cynicism.
Another problem is that one of the pioneering examples cited—Justice Thomas Berger’s lengthy 1970s inquiry into a gas pipeline in the Mackenzie Valley of the Northwest Territories—ended up effectively scuttling the proposed line to the Beaufort Sea.
“Environmental assessment and getting it right, is tough,” McKenna told the 32 summit participants, drawn from business, academia, non-governmental and indigenous groups.
“There are many interests and angles that you have to weigh and have to balance.”
The summit, organized by West Coast Environmental Law and hosted by the University of Ottawa, will end up submitting a report to the government on suggested parameters for an effective resource project review system. It is just one cog in the Liberal government’s effort to meet its pledge to remake environmental assessments.
And it came as former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley was publicly cautioning the government against “consultation constipation.”
“Reviews are fine, (but) I hate them,” Manley told a global affairs symposium. “I’ve always thought they are a method of delay and you can have consultation constipation and just not get to actually governing.”
However, when it comes to getting massive resource projects approved, consultation early and often is the key, the summit participants told McKenna.
Resource companies should talk to affected communities at the very start of a project development, long before they draft and submit detailed proposals for assessment, said one participant.
Berger set the template with his Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry that began in 1974, said Lee Doran, a veteran consultant who writes environmental assessments for resource and construction companies.
“He stayed in those (indigenous) communities as long as anybody wanted to talk,” said Doran.
Another participant pointed to the James Bay hydroelectric project and land claims as another sterling example, while someone else noted the Voisey’s Bay land claims agreement and nickel mine project in Labrador that “broke tremendous new ground.”
The commonality among the examples, beyond the predominant involvement of local indigenous communities, was the broad scope of the negotiations and fitting the resource project within a bigger regional frame.
The narrow focus of current environmental assessments on a single project is part of the problem, the room told McKenna.
The government needs to assess wider regional or sectoral goals, rather than trying to shoehorn broad social, cultural, economic and environmental concerns into the assessment process for any single pipeline or mine.
As summit organizer Anna Johnston, staff legal counsel for West Coast Environmental Law, said in introducing McKenna, the goal is to reduce conflict and produce wise decisions “that result in the best outcome for the most amount of people and the environment, into the future.”
“Don’t feel too much pressure, but this is our legacy law,” added Johnston.