The Canadian government promised Thursday to speed up the country’s notoriously slow environmental approval process by setting tight deadlines for regulatory agencies, reducing overlap with provincial reviews, improving Aboriginal consultations and making protests potentially tougher to mount.

With a vow to inaugurate a new era of “smart regulation,” the Conservative regime in Ottawa used its 2012 budget to launch a series of legislative, spending and reorganization initiatives billed as “modernizing the regulatory system” to provide for “responsible resource development.”

While all industrial projects are affected, the action is primarily aimed at eliminating ordeals in the energy sector such as the 2004-2010 review of the now-dormant Mackenzie Gas Project and the current marathon furor over the Northern Gateway proposal for a new oilsands export pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Coast of British Columbia.

The package includes a 24-month target for completing reviews of the largest projects by the National Energy Board (NEB), the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), and joint review panels involving the two federal authorities and parallel provincial regimes. Targets of one year to 18 months are set for environmental reviews of smaller, simpler industrial schemes by single federal agencies. The proposals include instructing federal authorities to stand aside when they are satisfied that provincial environmental reviews will fulfill national standards. As a more active contribution, federal project regulation management and Aboriginal consultation bureaus will step up their work with increased budgets.

Potentially the most controversial aspect of the new regulatory scheme is a planned crackdown on protests by environmental groups that have thrown sand into the gears of the regulatory process. Literally thousands of formal requests to make oral statements currently muddy the outlook for completing the review of the Northern Gateway Pipeline (NGP), which would transport oil from the oilsands to Kitimat, BC, for eventual shipment by tanker to Asia (see NGI, Nov. 8, 2004).

The action also follows reports by groups on the Canadian political right, including senior members of the ruling Conservative party, that U.S. and British eco-advocacy groups have been funneling tens of millions of dollars into campaigns against Alberta-based pipeline and oilsands projects.

The crackdown chiefly entails stepped-up enforcement by Canadian revenue collection authorities of restrictions on use of income tax exemptions to drum up funds for protests by environmental groups that operate as not-for-profit or charitable organizations. Canada’s Income Tax Act limits spending on political advocacy to 10% of revenues. Penalties for exceeding the ceiling include losing the right to give charitable donation receipts that entitle donors to tax deductions.

No deadline was set on enacting the environmental regulatory modernization scheme. The government said it plans to start making changes in time to speed up the Gateway pipeline review currently in progress across northern Alberta and British Columbia.

The budget announcements immediately ignited protests by the opposition parties in Canada’s Parliament, and from an array of environmental organizations. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Mining Association of Canada and the Canadian Nuclear Association just as swiftly showered praise on the government, saying accelerated natural resource development is the key to ensuring that the national economy continues to avoid falling into the global recession that has hit the U.S. and Europe much harder.

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