Ottawa’s smart, but risky, plan [environmental assessment reviews] – National Post Editorial (April 23, 2012)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

The federal government is taking a courageous but risky step in its plan to streamline the process for environmental assessment reviews. Courageous because there’s a good case to be made for eliminating the delays, overlap, inefficiency and political guerrilla tactics that can afflict otherwise harmless projects. The danger is that the slightest slip could leave the government looking like the environmental scofflaw its critics claim it to be.

Companies seeking approval for projects that could impact the environment enter a world that can often seem surreal. Both Ottawa and the provinces alike claim the right to review and assess projects. Sometimes they both pick the same project, though for different reasons, and using different criteria. Provincial reviews can be quicker, but may be overruled by a federal review. Federal reviews may be more intense, but provincial ones sometimes take in a wider array of concerns. This can prove beneficial, since a positive impact on a local economy may be deemed to outweigh a potential negative impact on the environment. Or not.

One news report notes that, in British Columbia, there are 562 projects under review by Ottawa, and 69 by the province. Two-thirds of the projects under provincial review will also need a federal review. In addition to the duplication, cost and proliferation of red tape, there is the danger of being caught up in the web of Big Environment, in which activist groups deliberately adopt delaying tactics in an effort to attract public attention and frustrate project backers. Their motive may be pure or otherwise – there are so many environmental organizations fired by their own particular brand of zealotry that it can be difficult to separate valid concerns from pointless, ego-driven grandstanding.

To some activist groups there is no such thing as a good mine or a necessary energy project. Any activity that encroaches on a single tree is justification for predictions of global destruction. The Harper government has sought to focus attention on groups it implies are fronts for foreign interlopers, intent on slowing Canada’s resource development with the help of millions of dollars in funding from cross-border troublemakers. It also sees no reason why environmental reviews should become the civic equivalent of the Oprah Winfrey Show, with everyone getting their chance to share their life views before a captive audience. In announcing the government’s plan, Joe Oliver, the Natural Resources Minister, argued that limiting participation to those directly affected by major projects would in fact strengthen environmental protection.

“We don’t see the need” to allow testimony from Canadians outside the project areas, or from environmental groups without specific expertise, Oliver told Postmedia News in an interview.

The government has a good argument to make. Environmental assessments should be fairly straightforward affairs that assess the potential impact of a project outside the purview of partisan politics. There is no need for the kind of circus that threatens proposals like the Northern Gateway pipeline project, in which thousands of applicants demand a chance to share their views, whether informed or otherwise, pertinent or not.

But this is where the danger enters. News reports on the government plan have been quick to dig out examples of potential conflicts. An $800-million open-pit mining project in northern B.C. that would have turned a pristine, trout-filled lake into a tailings pond was approved by the province (and championed by its premier) before being vetoed by Ottawa.

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