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Hill Dispatches: Turning back the clock on environmental checks and balances

What is puzzling about Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's announcement today of a streamlined environmental review process is the sense of urgency -- almost panic -- to get resources out of the ground and to market, as quickly as possible.

"There is a growing appetite for our energy resources from the world's dynamic, emerging economies," the Minister said. "But we have to act fast. We have to seize the moment!"

The only question he did not answer is: Why?

What's the hurry?

Our natural resources are not going anywhere. And those "dynamic, emerging economies" we seek to service -- are they planning to close shop soon?

On previous occasions, Oliver has said that we in Canada do not have the capital to develop our resources on our own. We need foreign investors -- including the human rights-challenged Chinese.

Unlike those meddlesome donors to environmental groups, foreign investors have only one real motive -- profit for themselves and their shareholders.

The Minister often talks about the billions of dollars in tax and royalty revenue that resource development will yield. The part of the resource development equation he does not mention is the part where massive profits will leave Canada, rewarding those foreign investors we need so desperately.

The Minister also talks a lot about the jobs that resource industries can create.

Again, on other occasions, Oliver has candidly admitted that we have not got the capacity in Canada to build secondary processing facilities for most of the resources lying fallow right now. And so, it is a question of getting our resources out of the ground and shipping them out of Canada in raw form, to be refined and processed elsewhere.

That means a good many of the long-term jobs created will be in foreign countries. And some research has shown that the lion's share of Canadian jobs will be temporary -- in construction, building pipelines, for instance.

An environmental review system that took four decades to build

The federal environmental review process that today's announcement seeks to undo has its roots in the 1970s and the beginnings of widespread environmental awareness. Prior to that, especially in the resource boom of the immediate post-war period, it was full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.

As the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency puts it, on its own Government of Canada website:

"Little consideration was given to broad environmental consequences of mega-projects. Environmental effects, including the destruction of wildlife habitat, air and water pollution, and the contamination of fish, were starting to be realized. [But] at most, attention was focused on after-thought solutions rather than prevention."

In 1973 the Trudeau Government Cabinet decided to "review the environmental effects of federal decisions."

That meant that projects on federal lands or in an areas of federal jurisdiction (i.e. nuclear energy) were to be screened to "ensure that they do the least possible damage to our natural environment."

But it was a weak and limited initiative, based on the principle of "self assessment" by federal departments, with little opportunity for public participation.

The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (the "Berger" Inquiry) from 1971 to 1974 is often cited as a precursor to environmental assessment. Judge Thomas Berger travelled through the entire Mackenzie River basin territory, from the 60th parallel to the Arctic Ocean, hearing testimony from First Nations people, who spoke not only of the land, water, fish and wildlife they depended on, but of their concerns for their unresolved treaty rights.

Maybe the memory of that Inquiry is what gives the current government pause.

Berger recommended a 10-year moratorium on pipeline construction in the Mackenzie Valley corridor. Nearly four decades later that pipeline is still not a reality -- but, if and when it does get built, it will be with complete First Nations collaboration.

The current federal environmental assessment system goes back to the Mulroney Government which passed the federal Environmental Assessment Act in 1990. The Agency only got created in 1995 under Chrétien.

It will be a faster process, but how will it be better?

Those were simpler times, when all parties had some genuine commitment to the environment. Now, for the first time in recent memory, we have a government that, in Green Party leader Elizabeth May's words, is aggressively "tough on nature."

Minister Oliver says the government's goals are: "predictable and timely assessments," "less duplication of effort," "stronger environmental protection," and "better consultation with aboriginal groups."

In limiting assessments to a maximum of 24 months, the Government will certainly succeed in its "timely" objective.

Allowing a provincial assessment to stand on its own, without a separate federal process will certainly end perceived "duplication."

Although leaving assessments to the provinces could have significant consequences.

One reporter asked the Minister about the Fish Lake proposal in British Columbia. Taseko Mines had proposed a major gold-copper mining operation that would have required dumping tailings into Fish Lake and destroying its trout and salmon. The British Columbia government approved the project, but the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency did not.

The question to Minister Oliver was: "Where will the checks and balances be in the new, streamlined process?"

As for how the new streamlined system will actually improve environmental outcomes, the Minister did not even bother to try to explain that.

Nor did he explain how the new system would allow for better consultation with native peoples. It is hard to imagine how a guillotine time limit will make it easier for aboriginal groups to gather information, consult their people and express their concerns.

A government with a negative environmental agenda

All of this was foreshadowed in the budget, of course, and in Minister Oliver's statements since last winter. And the streamlining process is of a piece with a series of significant cuts to environmental spending -- including cuts to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency itself.

As the NDP's Environment critic Megan Leslie sees it:

"After slashing funding to the Agency, they're now saddling it with the obligation to do more complex reviews, faster, with fewer resources..."

And the official opposition party's deputy environment critic, young Quebec MP Laurin Liu explains how a more rigorous and demanding assessment process could actually be a boon to Canadian businesses:

"On the one hand, businesses that had measured the social acceptability of their projects through an extensive environmental assessment process would know where they stood before investing large sums of money. On the other hand, quality environmental protection would allow Canada to improve trade relations, as we are currently seen as an environmental offender."

This Government's economic model does not, however, seem to include fostering the progressive, environmental enterprises of the future.

This Government's eyes are set firmly on turning the clock back on four decades of continuous growth in the environmental assessment process.

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