Environmental Assessment – Federal Role Under Fire

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

The Canadian government doesn’t understand or value environmental assessment any more than it understands or values sustainable development. Unless the Canadian public – not just environmental groups – takes a stand, we could lose what’s left of the federal environmental assessment process, and with it the possibility of building a coherent and consistent framework for planning for sustainable development.

Based on developments over the last couple of years, the federal government clearly views environmental assessment as a nuisance or obstacle – from the removal of the Navigable Waters Protection Act as a trigger for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) to the exclusion of ‘stimulus’ projects, to the use of the 2010 Budget Implementation Bill to counteract the Supreme Court of Canada’s MiningWatch decision (the Red Chris mine). The current government does not share (or maybe even comprehend) our vision of environmental assessment as part of an integrated and participatory planning process with sustainable development as its ultimate objective.

It’s revealing that in the process of rejecting Taseko Mines’ “Prosperity” project based on the findings of the federal environmental assessment panel, former federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice said, “We believe in balancing resource stewardship with economic development.” It’s as if the Brundtland Commission had never existed, as if the notion that the economy and the environment are not separate entities had never been developed, and as if sustainable development was not one of the stated purposes of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

There are certainly shortcomings in the existing legislation and even more serious shortcomings in its implementation. Key federal agencies have consistently tried to avoid their obligations, and industry groups and provincial governments have continually challenged the legitimacy of the federal government’s role in environmental assessment. The recent “Prosperity” decision is a case in point; the province of British Columbia actually withdrew from negotiations towards a joint federal-provincial assessment of the project in order to push a provincial-only assessment through more quickly and then try to force the federal government to accept its findings. In the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, the mining industry has taken a strong stance that provincial-level assessment is sufficient for development projects.

What is needed is not the weakened and splintered federal assessment process that the government seems intent on, covering only isolated areas of federal jurisdiction in an inconsistent and arbitrary process. We need a transparent, participatory, concrete, and enforceable environmental assessment process that is really focused on achieving sustainable development, and is part of a broader framework that builds on community and regional planning processes and includes mechanisms to review cumulative and transboundary impacts (including climate change) and government policies and programs, and to allow for meaningful consultation and accommodation for aboriginal peoples.

Some time in the next few months the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development will begin reviewing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. MiningWatch will be working with the member groups of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Caucus of the Canadian Environmental Network and other groups, including aboriginal organizations, to educate legislators and the public and to participate in the Committee process. We will need all the public support we can get.