Parliamentary Review of Canadian Environmental Assessment Act Abruptly Terminated

(Nov. 29, 2011: Ottawa/Vancouver) Environmental groups across Canada are expressing shock over the abrupt termination of the Parliamentary review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). Committee hearings scheduled for today were cancelled late last week without warning, and even written submissions are no longer being accepted.

“The House of Commons Environment and Sustainable Development Committee has apparently been told to abandon half-way the job that it is legally required to do,” said MiningWatch Canada’s Jamie Kneen, co-chair of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Caucus of the Canadian Environmental Network. “It seems the government has now given its MPs – and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency – marching orders to implement its agenda of eliminating federal environmental assessment requirements. We can only conclude that the hatchets are being sharpened behind closed doors to dismember this key federal law.

The Caucus’ other co-chair, West Coast Environmental Law Association’s Josh Paterson, added, “The CEAA Seven-year Review was a superb opportunity for the Environment Committee and the government to engage Canadians in a discussion about how to use environmental assessment to address issues such as climate change and biodiversity that are critical to the health and prosperity of Canadians. It is truly discouraging that this opportunity is being thrown away.

It could be disastrous if the government goes ahead with legislative changes without serious public consultation according to the Caucus, a national network of environmental groups seeking to improve environmental assessment since 1985. “Given the measures that the government has already taken to limit the application and effectiveness of the federal process, there is no reason to doubt that it will suffer even greater damage,” said Kneen.

The Parliamentary review has been repeatedly delayed, most recently by the 2010 election which was called just when the review was due to begin. The process had already been criticised for lacking direction and public accountability when its cancellation was announced last Thursday with no explanation. The NDP has stated opposition to the end of the process and the other opposition parties have not stated their positions at this time.

"The democratic process means involving people in setting the direction that our laws take,” said Paterson. “In order to develop environmental legislation that will actually be effective, you need everybody at the table. This process doesn’t come close."

“Environmental assessment is the cornerstone of sustainable development,” said Ecojustice lawyer Stephen Hazell. “A federal law requiring environmental assessment of development projects with guarantees for public participation is essential if Canada is to make the transition to sustainable communities and a low-carbon economy.”

Environmental groups have long recognised that the existing federal process has serious drawbacks, and have supported measures to strengthen its effectiveness and improve its efficiency. However, in addition to several recent amendments aimed at limiting the application of the federal process and speeding up decision-making without regard for public participation, fears that the government was engaged in behind-the-scenes moves to make more drastic changes were sparked by the 2009 leak of proposed legislation that would eliminate most requirements to carry out federal environmental assessments.

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