Pipeline Trail in Corner Brook, NL. Photo: Kbq430/Wikimedia Commons

The Trudeau government has released its discussion paper on the much-anticipated “project list” regulations for Bill C-69, the controversial Impact Assessment Act, which will replace the current environmental assessment law. The project list identifies the types of projects that would have to undergo a federal environmental impact assessment. This is the key regulation under the new act. 

For virtually every activity with impacts on the environment — pipelines, mines, nuclear reactors, highways — the current project list would be weakened. The discussion paper proposes higher “thresholds” for the size of a project (longer pipelines, bigger mines, etc.) for it to require review — so more projects could be built without assessment.

Only renewable energy projects would face tighter thresholds.

This is absolutely the wrong approach. A basic principle of environmental assessment is that you start by looking at everything. 

Trying to guess in advance which projects might significantly impact the environment or trigger public concern is impossible. But the discussion paper not only retains this flawed approach, it makes it worse. 

The original Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) used a tiered approach: any project funded or licensed by the federal government or carried out on federal land or by a federal department received at least a basic screening. 

That all went out the window when the Harper government changed the CEAA in 2012 so that formal impact assessments were only done on listed projects. It was a huge mistake to use the 2012 version of the CEAA as the starting point for a new act. 

A new act should be based on the original 1992 CEAA. I served on the interdepartmental committee that wrote it. We spent years getting that act and regulations under it as workable as possible. There were regulations for projects that required comprehensive study. There were inclusion list and exclusion list regulations. There were regulations for how to assess a class of recurring activities.

The Harper government replaced all that with a relatively short list of projects to be assessed. If a project falls under a threshold or is off the list altogether, its impacts are ignored.

Fewer assessments, more impacts ignored

The Trudeau government wants to ignore even more projects and their impacts.

To cite just one example, the current project list calls for assessment of any new nuclear reactor. The new list sets a threshold (200 MW thermal) — so the nuclear industry can build smaller nuclear reactors anywhere in Canada with no consideration of their environmental or social impacts. 

Indigenous and Northern communities are being targeted for these reactors. The discussion paper claims their effects are “well known” and “share core characteristics” with existing reactors, but many use new and untested designs, or technologies that caused serious accidents in early prototypes.

Communities where the nuclear industry wants to build these reactors must have the right to decide whether to accept their risks. More broadly, formal environmental impact assessment of all federally funded or regulated projects, large or small, is needed to protect the environment, the rights of Indigenous communities, public health and safety.

The 1992 version of the CEAA wasn’t perfect. It was based on the premise that in order to promote economic growth, damage to the environment was acceptable. “Adverse environmental impacts” were unavoidable, but could be “mitigated” or “offset” — kept to a minimum. If adverse impacts were deemed too large, then the project shouldn’t go forward.

Fast forward a quarter century later. Damage to the environment is extreme. We are living in an ongoing climate emergency. Wildlife populations have crashed. The ocean is full of plastic garbage.

Dire conditions require a positive approach

We now need an environmental assessment regime focused on positive impacts. 

Prime Minister Trudeau has said — hundreds of times — that the environment and economic growth can go hand in hand. Bill C-69 proposes baby steps in that direction. In its definition of “effects” it includes “positive” consequences for health, social or economic conditions. It calls for an assessment of “the extent to which the designated project contributes to sustainability.” 

But it’s window dressing.

If we “sustain” what we’re doing now, we won’t be around much longer. The word “positive” appears four times in C-69. “Adverse” appears 66 times. “Pipeline” appears 316 times.

Imagine how depressing it would be working at the proposed “Impact Assessment Agency” — the regulator overseeing the new assessment process — where your responsibilities would include deciding how much additional environmental damage is OK.

Instead, imagine working in a federal agency with a clear mandate to make things better. For any project with real, on-the-ground impacts, you’d be there pitching ways to make that project go as far as possible to benefit the environment and improve social conditions in affected communities. 

Thousands of young people would line up to do that.

The federal government is giving Canadians until May 31 to submit comments on the discussion paper outlining the C-69 project list here.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Kbq430/Wikimedia Commons

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Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.