Ottawa unveils overhaul of environmental legislation


WATCH: Significant changes are coming in the way environmental assessments are carried out in this country. New laws will be created and others amended. As Mary Griffin explains,  all are promises made by the Liberals during the federal election.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna introduced new legislation on Thursday that will govern the assessment and approval of major energy projects.

“The legislation we are introducing today aims to restore public trust in how the federal government makes decisions about major projects, like mines, pipelines, and hydro dams,” McKenna said.

Ottawa is overhauling the way environmental assessments are done with the sweeping legislation, called Bill C-69.

In the 340-page document, the Impact Assessment Act will repeal the current Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.  The National Energy Board will be replaced by a new Canadian Energy Regulator and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency will be renamed the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. That agency will have set timelines for the review of projects: a maximum of 300 days for smaller ones with fewer assessment requirements so that they can be carried out in a timely manner.

Environmental groups are cautiously optimistic about the changes.  “In many areas, we are very excited. The government had promised to restore the lost legal environmental law protections that had been taken away by the previous government,” Andrew Gage, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, said.

“In some cases they have done that, and in other cases, they haven’t.”

The Liberals promised to streamline the approval process for major natural resources projects during the federal election.  But it doesn’t mean projects like the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion would be rejected with the new legislation.

Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May says while she supports the federal government’s proposed changes to the Fisheries Act that would protect coasts from the negative effects of heavy-oil projects, she is not as pleased with the other changes.

“It’s full of political discretion. It leaves the National Energy Board although it’s renaming it the Canadian Energy Regulator. It leaves it playing a critical role in environmental reviews of pipelines. And I don’t think British Columbians will stand for that,” May said.

Pipelines are a hot issue on Vancouver Island, as the prime minister found last week. Pipeline protestors at times threaten to drown out the Nanaimo town hall meeting.

As a caution, the federal environment minister’s parliamentary secretary, Jonathan Wilkinson, was in Victoria to outline the legislation on Thursday.

“Today we are keeping our promise to Canadians. We are putting in place better rules to protect our environment, and to build a stronger economy,” Wilkinson said.

Meanwhile, Gage said there is more work the federal government needs to do.

“I would characterize it as a really important first step. But if they leave it here, then they certainly haven’t lived up to their promise to restore lost legal protections, and to modernize statues,” Gage said.

The B.C. government will be announcing its own steps towards changes to the province’s environmental assessment process in the next few weeks.

Mary GriffinMary Griffin

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