Shining a Light on the Federal Government’s False Claims on Environmental Assessment and the Budget

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

By Jamie Kneen

(Updated June 15, 2012) Federal budgets weren’t always this controversial. Sure, there was a tough public debate around the financial direction the government was taking, but – that was all. Radical changes to environmental governance, public services, and the whole concept of the public interest? This is quite new.

It’s hard to know which is more worrying: the systematic trashing of environmental and social safeguards, or the anti-democratic way it is being done. Not only is the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act being repealed and replaced with a few slices of Swiss cheese, but the Fisheries Act is being cut into bait, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy is being axed, and scientific and environmental protection capacity is being cut – along with a vast array of other cuts to democratically-important public institutions, everything from putting down the CSIS watchdog to repealing the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act.

But really, these are just two aspects of the same issue: whether government decision making should be in the public interest, or just respond special interest groups – in this case, domestic and foreign investors. If Cabinet ministers, the investors, and the Market know best, then there’s no need for scientific research on ecosystems, economies, or human societies, and there’s certainly no need to for public interest groups – or even the public at large – to be involved in decision-making.

The reality is that things don’t actually work that way. The profit motive does not protect anything that’s not directly profitable, whether that’s a worker on disability or a fish spawning bed in a wilderness river. That’s why we have laws and regulations. It’s part of why the federal environmental assessment process had evolved over the years to include questions of sustainability, to value public participation, and even to address First Nations’ rights to consultation and accommodation on projects affecting their lands and livelihoods.

The Conservative government is riding a wave of misinformation in the media, generated by provincial governments, resource industries, “think tanks”, and its own pronouncements, to push these changes through as part of the omnibus budget implementation Act, Bill C-38, entitled (with no hint of irony) the Responsible Resource Development Act. Focusing just on the new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act it includes, we find that every one of the government’s proclamations is specious, disingenuous, or simple horse exhaust:

  • These changes are so urgent that they must be passed at once, as part of the budget: The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was referred to Parliament for a scheduled review two years ago. The government did nothing for sixteen months, and had actually dropped efforts by the Minister’s own Regulatory Advisory Committee as well as the Canadian Environmental Network’s Environmental Planning and Assessment Caucus to prepare for the review.
  • “One project, one assessment”: This has been a primary objective within the existing system for years; that’s why there were harmonization agreements between the federal and provincial governments. It didn’t always work, mostly due to provinces playing political games. By weakening the federal role and splitting up federal assessments between several federal agencies (CEAA, CNSC, NEB), as well as provincial and territorial environmental assessment (EA) processes, CEAA 2012 actually Balkanizes EA across about 19 very different processes. For a proponent who never strays out of one jurisdiction, this might not be a problem, but for anyone else – including Aboriginal groups and national public interest groups like MiningWatch – it certainly is. Even basic points like public access to information on the project and the assessment process are inconsistent.
  • Simplifying federal involvement: Ensuring consistent treatment of project proposals across dozens of departments and agencies was indeed a persistent problem under CEAA for many years, but even industry representatives have said they were quite satisfied with the situation more recently, with the creation of the Major Projects Management Office and a stronger effort by the CEA Agency to manage project proposals.
  • Reducing the number of assessments of small, environmentally benign projects: Existing mechanisms were never well used, whether due to simple lack of interest or political will, or lack of resources and coordination to develop templates and standards. In fact a very promising effort to develop a Canada-wide standard on environmental assessment was killed just as it got close to something that might be implemented. Not all small projects are benign, and some of them aren’t even that small (think of the Jasper glacier skywalk).
  • Timelines must be imposed to keep EAs from dragging on: Most of the delays in the “permitting and approvals” process actually occur before and after the EA itself, beginning with the identification of a project proposal and ending with its operating permits. Within an EA process, delays are usually due to proponents’ failure or inability to provide sufficient information, or a market downturn that makes the project not worth pursuing, in some cases for years. Imposing strict deadlines on public participation, or on technical input from government scientists, does nothing to address these problems, though it does severely limit the possibility that the EA process will be able to include and address public concerns – or Aboriginal peoples’ rights to consultation and accommodation.
  • Foreign-funded radicals interfering in the process: This red herring has already been thoroughly kippered by everyone from David Suzuki on down.

What can be done?

On our own, and with the Canadian Environmental Network’s Environmental Planning and Assessment Caucus, MiningWatch has been working with environmental law specialists and environmental groups across the country to critique the government’s proposals, but also to bring forward more constructive proposals for an EA regime that would actually work. We’ve helped ensure that other environmental groups, and civil society groups of all descriptions, have access to the analysis and documentation they need so they can inform and mobilise their members. The “Save Canada’s Environmental Laws!” web site and social media campaign are part of that. We’ve pushed on every available opening in Parliament, and helped other groups to do the same. Leadnow.ca joined in to send messages to the government and to individual MPs. We’ve mobilised people to talk to their MPs and to pressure the government to drop this ill-advised initiative. In response to our urging, larger environmental and conservation groups launched the Black Out Speak Out campaign; we joined them on June 4th in blacking out our web site and directing people to the Black Out Speak Out site where they can learn more and take action.

The government has expressed no interest in undertaking meaningful consultations towards a real reform of CEAA.

More importantly, we are getting the word out that Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike must be aware that their concerns will not be heard and their interests will not be protected under the new system, even to the limited extent that they were before. We will have a lot of work to do to prevent badly-planned megaprojects from destroying a lot more watersheds, communities, and livelihoods.