Expert Panel Report Calls for Broad Changes in Federal Environmental Assessment Law

(Ottawa) The public’s desire for a dramatic reworking of Canada’s environmental assessment law is clearly reflected in the report of the Expert Panel commissioned by federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, released yesterday.

“The Trudeau government committed to restore the credibility of the environmental assessment process, and the Expert Panel found that the public, and Indigenous peoples, are eager to take them up on that promise,” said MiningWatch Canada spokesperson Jamie Kneen. “The Panel has made a valiant effort to consolidate that energy and turn it into coherent recommendations,” Kneen added. “It’s not perfect, but the report provides a good framework for the kind of changes that are clearly necessary.”

The report makes several key recommendations that follow what the public and environmental assessment experts have been calling for. These include a greater emphasis on assessments of regional plans and government policies and thorough consideration of climate change impacts, as well as a shift to assessment that includes social, economic, and ecological factors to determine a project’s contribution to sustainability.

The report also recommends a single federal authority to oversee the process and make decisions. This would eliminate the widely-criticized role of the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in the environmental assessment process, allowing them to focus on trying to achieve independent, effective, and competent regulation of their respective sectors.

While the Expert Panel clearly tried to be as explicit as possible in its recommendations, it will take considerable work to implement them. Kneen commented, “The Expert Panel has done a convincing job of listening and integrating people’s concerns, experience, and proposals. The ball is now in the government’s court, to find ways to implement the Panel’s recommendations that respect its work, and also, importantly, to honour the public and Indigenous contributions to the Panel process.”

One question that the Expert Panel was not asked to address, and on which the government has been silent, is how environmental assessment will be carried out in the period before any revised legislation is in place. The government established interim principles for such reviews in January of last year, but they are outmoded in light of the Expert Panel’s work, and there are many aspects of its recommendations that can be implemented without legislative change.

For example, the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation (SSN) has completed its own hearings on the Ajax mine in Kamloops, B.C., in Secwepemc territory, and rejected the project, yet both provincial and federal review processes continue. The Panel has reflected the government’s commitment to a renewed nation-to-nation relationship in strong recommendations for cooperation with and respect for Indigenous governments. This gives the federal government has the opportunity to move to respect the SSN process and decision.

The Expert Panel travelled the country for four months and received hundreds of submissions. Their report is now open to public comment until May 5 at The government is expected to start drafting new legislation in the fall that would be introduced into Parliament in early 2018.

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