A national government inquiry is urging Canada to steer in the opposite direction of the United States by expanding environmental regulation of natural gas, oil, pipeline, mining and public works projects.
“Assessment processes must move beyond the biophysical environment to encompass all impacts likely to result from a project, both positive and negative,” says the report of an expert review appointed by federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.
After a seven-month roving canvass of Canadian opinion that included visits to 21 cities across the country the four-member panel concluded, “What is now ‘environmental assessment’ should become ‘impact assessment.’”
Approval decisions and conditions should cover “five pillars of sustainability,” says the report: project environmental, social, economic, health and cultural effects. “This new approach would not be limited in its breadth but would instead be all-encompassing.”
The 117-page report proposes a new regime led by a law court-like “Impact Assessment Commission” that would supervise projects from cradle to grave and enable public participation in all planning, construction, operational and decommissioning phases.
The panel did not report encountering significant popular demand for a Canadian version of President Trump’s executive order to speed up development by stripping complicated issues such as climate change out of approval procedures. Instead, the Canadian report recites consensus wish lists for thorough, expanded and publicly accessible supervision of industry and government projects.
Despite appearances fostered by noisy eco-puritan resistance to industry -- and especially fossil-fuel production and transportation -- on principle, “In general we did not hear strident opposition to the development of projects,” the panel says.
“Rather, we heard that when communities, proponents and governments work together with mutual respect and understanding in a process that is open, inclusive and trusted, assessment processes can deliver better projects, bring society more benefits than costs and contribute positively to Canada’s sustainable future.”
In releasing the report and asking for public comment by May 5, McKenna set no target dates for government action on the recommendations. In a statement to a Montreal conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment, she only repeated, “We want to build a new system that serves the public’s interest and provides certainty to businesses. At the end of the day, we want to get good projects built. We know they create jobs that support communities across our country.”
The environment minister described the document as only one element in a complete review of industrial and economic regulation that her Liberal party promised on the way to victory over the former Conservative government in the 2015 Canadian election.
A parallel expert review of the 58-year-old National Energy Board is scheduled to present a report in mid-May. The environmental inquiry also highlighted unfinished, federal cabinet-level work on two other big Liberal promises that the panel calls essential ingredients for a new impact assessment regime: an improved relationship with native communities and a national climate change policy.
After the 2015 election, at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set the stage for a prolonged reform effort by pledging to accept, in a manner consistent with the Canadian constitution, the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
“Broader discussions need to occur between the Government of Canada and Indigenous Peoples with respect to nation-to-nation relationships, overlapping and unresolved claims to Aboriginal rights and title, reconciliation, treaty implementation and implementation of UNDRIP,” said the panel. “Many of these discussions will be necessary prerequisites to the full and effective implementation of the recommendations.”
Keeping the Liberal promise of a fully “inclusive” regulatory regime will be a tall order, suggest the panel recommendations. The report points out that the UNDRIP ideals include “free, prior and informed consent” to industrial activity in areas where natives stake territorial claims, which in Canada includes much of the country.
“A new impact assessment regime should be fundamentally based on collaborative consent, with Indigenous Peoples on par with other levels of government,” says the environmental review report. Native societies would “be included in decision-making at all stages of impact assessment, in accordance with their own laws and customs.”
National climate change policy development faces similar hurdles because the Canadian constitutional division of powers splits jurisdiction between the federal and provincial governments. Representatives of both levels are currently working on implementing a lofty but vague 2016 “framework agreement” on greenhouse-gas control.
“Impact assessment should play a critical role in supporting Canada’s efforts to address climate change,” says the panel report. “The current assessment process and interim principles take into account some aspects of climate change, but there is an urgent national need for clarity and consistency.”
The panel acknowledges that environmental reviews are time-consuming but suggests collaborative public and native participation in all project stages has potential to improve on current complex, fractured and overlapping federal and provincial systems.
“Although it is important to try to avoid lengthy and drawn-out assessment processes, it is also necessary to consider the efficiencies gained by reducing tensions and conflict that can accompany insufficient participation opportunities and unresolved concerns.”