Ottawa elbows regulators in quest for final word on pipeline approvals – by Shawn McCarthy (Globe and Mail – April 18, 2012)

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The federal government is asserting its control over pipelines – including the proposed Northern Gateway oil-sands project – taking from regulators the final word on approvals and limiting the ability of opponents to intervene in environmental assessments.

In proposed legislation unveiled by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver on Tuesday, the Harper government will clear away regulatory hurdles to the rapid development of Canada’s natural resource bounty.

Ottawa is aiming to reduce the number of projects that undergo federal environmental assessment by exempting smaller developments completely and by handing over many large ones to the provinces. It will also bring in new measures to prevent project opponents from delaying the assessment process by flooding hearings with individuals who face no direct impacts but want to speak against the development.

At a Toronto press conference, Mr. Oliver said the proposed changes are aimed at providing quicker reviews in order to reduce regulatory uncertainty and thereby create more jobs and investment in Canada’s booming resource sector.

“We are at a critical juncture because the global economy is now presenting Canada with an historic opportunity to take full advantage of our immense resources,” he said. “But we must seize the moment. These opportunities won’t last forever.”

Resource-rich western provinces greeted the proposed changes warmly, saying they are eager to take over environmental assessments. Mr. Oliver said Ottawa will only transfer authority for project reviews to provinces that have similar standards as the federal government.

Provinces in central and Atlantic Canada were more cautious, wanting to know more details before drawing conclusions.

Environmental groups and some aboriginal leaders said the government is sacrificing environmental protection for development, and is intent on railroading all opposition to its vision of rapid development of oil sands and other resources.

A key flash point is the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oil-sands bitumen to the British Columbia coast for export to Asia by supertanker. The Harper government has insisted that it is a national priority to expand pipeline access for energy producers to access fast-growing Asian markets.

Mr. Oliver confirmed that the Northern Gateway project would fall under the new legislation which, according to federal background documents, would move the final decision on pipeline projects from the National Energy Board to the federal cabinet.

Under current rules, the board can reject an application that is deemed to have unacceptable environmental impacts, though it rarely has done so. Under new legislation, the cabinet has the final say, on advice from the regulatory board.

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