Canadian Government Sidesteps Supreme Court Ruling
Following MiningWatch Canada's victory in ensuring that environmental assessments of major projects must legally examine the entire proposal, it seems the Canadian government is already finding ways around the measures. See: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=9843
Canada: Government Sidesteps Supreme Court Ruling on Environmental Assessment - Budget Bill Ignores Court Instruction to Streamline Process
MiningWatch Canada News Release
1 April 2010
(Ottawa) Only weeks after the Supreme Court of Canada issued a strong ruling reinforcing the federal role in assessing the environmental impacts of industrial development projects, the plaintiffs in that case say the government is using the budget implementation bill introduced on Tuesday to violate that ruling.
"The government is trying to sneak in previously unannounced measures to severely limit the application of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act," says MiningWatch Canada spokesman Jamie Kneen.
On January 21, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously decided a case brought by MiningWatch over the federal government's handling of the proposed Red Chris copper-gold mine in British Columbia. The Court ruled that the federal government cannot assess only part of a project, or split projects into artificially small parts to avoid rigorous environmental assessments. The ruling guaranteed that the public would be consulted about major industrial projects, including large metal mines and tar sands developments. The Budget bill includes amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act that would effectively reverse the Supreme Court ruling.
"The Supreme Court gave clear direction on how to minimise overlap and duplication, and if the ruling were applied properly it would also go a long way to reduce delays - yet the government has chosen to completely ignore that ruling and pursue a damn-the-torpedoes approach to development," says Kneen.
MiningWatch is also disturbed by the secrecy surrounding the government initiative, given that the Environmental Assessment Act is required to undergo a Parliamentary review in just a few months. Says Kneen, "I am shocked at this. When the Supreme Court rendered its decision, we assumed that the government would respect the ruling, and pursue legislative change through the parliamentary review. The Government is clearly just as eager to avoid public scrutiny of its policies as it is to avoid public scrutiny of major industrial projects. Most of these changes were not even hinted at in the Throne Speech or even the Budget speech."
"The irony," says Kneen, "is that environmental assessment is one of the most important tools we have to balance economic interests, the environment, and the public interest. The government is not destroying that tool completely, but they're essentially breaking off the handles."
Tories accused of hiding new environment rules in budget bill
The Canadian Press
31 March 2010
OTTAWA-Environmental groups and opposition politicians say the federal Conservatives are trying to gut environmental assessment laws by sneaking in new rules in budget legislation.
"This is a big step backward about 20 years," John Bennett of the Sierra Club said Wednesday.
Budget legislation introduced in the House this week would give the environment minister the power to divide a large project up into smaller components for the purpose of studying its environmental impact.
"The minister may ... determine that the scope of the project in relation to which an environmental assessment is to be conducted is limited to one or more components of that project," says the legislation.
That means the environment minister would have the power to determine which aspects of a proposal would be assessed. That would make it harder to consider the combined effects of one megaproject or several large projects in one area such as Alberta's oilsands.
"What they're trying to do is take away the big picture," said Bennett.
The bill also says projects funded under a wide array of federal stimulus spending programs would also be exempt from environmental assessments.
"What they appear to be doing is amending the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in order to give the minister very clear authority to exclude thousands of projects," said David McGuinty, environment critic for the Opposition Liberals.
He suggested the move is a response to a recent Supreme Court decision which took the government to task for assessing the tailings pond of a proposed mine in northern British Columbia without taking into consideration the rest of the project.
The government's speech from the throne promises to "modernize" approval for large projects. Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Tories and the Liberals under Jean Chretien promised to do away with regulations that resulted in both provincial and federal reviews for the same project.
Environment Minister Jim Prentice said the changes will make the process more effective.
"We all want to see the environment protected. These are three technical changes that will make the process more efficient, eliminate duplication and ensure that we don't have multiple environmental assessments and harmonize with the provinces," he told reporters.
"We've simply make sure that there is an authority somewhere in the hands of the executive branch of government to determine the right scope for a project. That authority will be with the minister of the environment in the future."
McGuinty agrees environmental assessments can be improved. But he's worried that giving so much authority to the minister would politicize decisions and make environmental policy subject to provincial lobbying and one-off deals that would create a patchwork across the country.
"Harmonizing with the provinces is something that should be examined very closely, but not if the process has the effect of whittling down federal standards."
NDP environment critic Linda Duncan said the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the environment is a shared federal-provincial responsibility and Ottawa is obliged to keep its hand in.
"There isn't any duplication," she said.
She added that slipping the changes into the budget bill prevents the public from having its say.
Bennett said the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is up for review later this spring. He said if the Tories want to change the legislation, that would be the time to try.
"What are they trying to hide?"
He said tucking the changes into the budget amounts to "bullying" the environment since opposition parties are unlikely to defeat the bill and cause an election.
McGuinty said this is the third time the Tories have weakened environmental assessments. They have reduced protection for waterways by granting more ministerial discretion over when reviews are done and have removed a requirement for assessments for federal projects budgeted at less than $10 million.