Controversial environment review bill faces major changes in Senate as clock ticks
The federal government is trying to balance environmental protections with economic interests in environmental reviews
OTTAWA—A controversial Liberal bill overhauling the environmental-review process for new energy and transportation projects is undergoing major reconstruction at a Senate committee.
More than 130 changes to the legislation are proposed by Conservative, independent and Liberal senators, a week after Alberta Premier Jason Kenney warned them the bill in its current form is stoking the fires of Alberta separatism.
“I think it is crystal-clear that amendments are desired to this flawed bill,” said Conservative Sen. Dennis Patterson, following a three-hour meeting of the Senate’s energy committee Thursday.
“There doesn’t seem to be anybody who thinks the bill is OK as it is.”
Kenney and energy-industry leaders have said the amendments they believe are needed to improve the bill must be all be made together, because just changing one or two of the elements will not be enough.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says she is open to some changes and her spokeswoman said Thursday the government is reviewing the list put forward in the Senate. She would not say what amendments the government will accept.
The government is trying to balance environmental protections with economic interests in environmental reviews, a delicate exercise that means trying to appease environment groups that supported them in the last election and address boiling anger in Alberta that its oil cannot find more ways to market.
The Liberals campaigned on a promise to overhaul the review process, saying the existing system, introduced by the former Conservative government in 2012, was fraught with problems and was making money for lawyers rather than building pipelines.
Bill C-69, the Impact Assessment Act, sets new timelines and parameters for reviews, including adding health and social impacts, as well as climate change, to the things to be considered. It also lifts restrictions set by the Conservatives on who can participate in the review process.
It also creates the new Impact Assessment Agency, replacing the existing Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, to oversee the review process for most projects. It relegates the National Energy Board to overseeing the industry, with no role to play in determining what new projects get approved.
Critics of the bill didn’t like the discretion given to the environment minister to force projects into the review process even if it wouldn’t normally apply. The minister would also have discretion to deny a project a review at all, or to suspend a review mid-stream.
Nor do they like the fact regulators like the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, have a reduced role to play in the assessment process, because many of the members of those groups are experts in their respective industries.
There are also concerns raised that the bill puts almost no limits on who can ask for standing to be heard during the review process, rather than limiting that right to people directly affected by a project.
The amendments proposed by the senators address all those concerns, including taking discretionary powers away from the environment minister and giving them to the Impact Assessment Agency.
“The point of setting up an independent Impact Assessment Agency is to have an independent Impact Assessment Agency,” said Sen. Yuen Pau Woo of British Columbia, the head of the Independent Senators Group.
In three hours of discussions Thursday, the senators managed to go through fewer than two dozen of the proposed amendments. The clock is ticking, with just five weeks left before Parliament rises for the summer. If the bill isn’t passed before then, it will die when the federal election is called in the fall.
Alberta Liberal Sen. Grant Mitchell, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said he is behind many of the suggested changes but isn’t a fan of a proposal to implement strict timelines, which would kill projects that weren’t fully reviewed by set deadlines.
He is also not sure the minister should lose the power to order a project into the review process. The proposed list of projects that would normally require reviews was finally released last week and includes pipelines, interprovincial electricity grids, national highways, offshore wind farms and new hydroelectric dams.