Ottawa to unveil sweeping changes to [resource development] environmental oversight – by Shawn McCarthy and John Ibbitson (Globe and Mail – April 17, 2012)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

OTTAWA – The Harper government is about to dramatically shrink the federal oversight of proposed natural resource developments, handing over environmental reviews for many projects to the provinces and cutting back the number of smaller construction projects that are subject to any environmental assessment.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is expected to unveil a sweeping legislative plan on Tuesday that will focus Ottawa’s role in environmental assessments to projects it deems to be of national significance.
Since taking office as a rookie minister last summer, Mr. Oliver has promised to streamline and overhaul Ottawa’s environmental assessment process, which the government insists is too cumbersome, duplicative and subject to tactical delaying efforts by environmental groups who are determined to block development.
More broadly, the move reflects Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vision of proper federal and provincial roles, in which Ottawa is far less active in areas of provincial jurisdiction like natural resource management, environmental protection and health policy.
Mr. Oliver’s announcement in Toronto puts some flesh on the promise contained in the March 30 budget that Ottawa would streamline the environmental assessment process to provide more timely reviews of major resource projects. Critics have already warned that the government is prepared to rubber-stamp resource developments regardless of their environmental impact even as it works to demonize opponents as “radical” and “foreign funded” groups that are working to undermine the national economic interest.
Under the proposed legislation, Ottawa would concentrate its effort on environmental assessments of “major economic projects,” according to background information obtained by The Globe and Mail. Provinces will set their own level of oversight for smaller projects.
It was unclear how federal and provincial governments will determine which projects require federal assessment and which require only provincial consideration, though those that cross provincial boundaries will remain federal matters.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who leads a province that has seen a boom in mining and other resource extraction projects in recent years, said the new policy would eliminate unnecessary duplication between federal and provincial regulation efforts.
“We want to make sure we have a rigorous environmental assessment process,” he said. “But we don’t think that means we need two. This is welcome news and we thank the federal government for doing this.”
Mr. Wall said both he and other premiers had been asking Mr. Harper for such a change. Streamlining these processes, he said, could help attract new investment by signalling to businesses that reviews would not be unnecessarily delayed.
He said it was appropriate for the federal government to reserve the right to undertake environmental assessments in some situations, such as where a project could affect more than one province. For instance, he said, Saskatchewan’s government wants to protect its lakes, some of which lie downwind and downstream from Alberta’s oil sands.
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