Ottawa needs to reassure Canadians that its new environmental review policies are sound – Toronto Star Editorial (April 19, 2012)

The Toronto Star, has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

If Canadians could trust Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to manage both our oil- and mineral-rich economy and the environment that surrounds it, it would be easy to welcome Ottawa’s plan for simpler, faster and more coherent environmental assessments. The current system is undeniably flawed.

But given Harper’s past hostility to green causes, it’s only natural to question his motives and worry about the impact of his reforms.

It’s easy to illustrate how the system falls down now. Even picayune projects need assessments, like adding more office space inside a federal building, replacing an old military generator, or washing fruit on a blueberry farm.

Meanwhile, federal assessments for major work can take years to launch, and years to finish. One Alberta oil sands project took almost six years before approval was granted. Uncertainty and delays on this scale could discourage investors and sacrifice Canadian jobs at a time when we can’t afford to lose either.

Right now, no fewer than 40 federal departments and agencies conduct green reviews, each with its own mandate, procedures and timelines. There’s also duplication between federal and provincial environmental regulations.

In short, this is an area ripe for a judicious trimming of red tape. And the government set about that task with a vengeance on Tuesday with its proposals for new legislation to streamline what it calls a “duplicative, cumbersome and uncertain” process.

No longer will “all kinds of small, routine, harmless projects get caught up in the costly regulatory net,” vows Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. Ottawa won’t sweat small stuff. The new goal will be “one project, one review” — with the feds focusing on major oil, gas, mining and pipe projects and the provinces doing the rest.

Instead of 40 federal players there will be three: the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board, and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. And the process won’t be allowed to drag on. There’s a two-year deadline, or less.

The net result will be “stronger environmental protection,” Oliver promises. On that, we still need to be persuaded. There’s a risk these changes won’t just cut red tape but also hack away at our green safety net. That’s the fear being voiced by activists such as David Suzuki, environmental protection groups, think tanks and others.

It doesn’t help Ottawa’s case that the thrust of Harper’s initiatives is to get more big projects such as the Northern Gateway oil-sands pipeline on stream faster. In releasing the plan, Oliver highlighted the need to more efficiently tap Canada’s resources.

One worrisome change would allow only those with a “direct interest” to take part in a review. That could limit participation to a few local voices while shutting out national groups that could bring expertise and research to the debate. Suzuki worries, as well, about the two-year review limit, even on vast projects whose impact is hard to evaluate. And there’s worry that the provinces won’t be particularly vigilant in balancing commercial and environmental interests.

To win over green skeptics –and they include a lot of Canadians, not just activists—the government needs to show through the law and its regulations that credible groups will continue to be heard, and that genuine concerns will be addressed. If all Ottawa is offering is a mock review it won’t be long before the courts are dragged in, and asked to hold the government to account.