As you read this, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development is locked in an in camera meeting on Parliament Hill. The Committee has one agenda item: review a draft report on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. It's highly unlikely that the report will contain good news for Canadians who care about clean air and water.
The Committee heard from 25 individuals and organizations between October 20 - November 24. At least one scheduled meeting was cancelled abruptly and the Committee instructed its analysts to report back today.
You should be nervous about this report.
First, the terms of reference given to the analysts are - to be blunt - biased. Analysts have been asked to address proponents' and stakeholders' concerns - but not public concerns. They have been asked to document "inefficiencies" and "ambiguities" (aka, "red tape"). They have been asked to identify ways to eliminate federal assessments. They have been instructed NOT to consider certain briefs submitted to the Committee during the review process.
Most alarmingly of all, the analyst's report will be made confidential. It will also be numbered, discouraging any committee members from leaking it to the general public.
The Committee hearings were stacked with industry spokespeople who repeated similar talking points about "streamlining" environmental assessments in each of their presentations.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, for example, urged the Committee to keep the scope of the CEAA narrow, stating that it shouldn’t be a tool to determine whether projects proceed; only how they proceed. This position suggests that no project is too dirty, no development too damaging to be turned down. Ever.
Even Peter Kent, Environment Minister, apparently cannot wait to make dramatic cuts to the number of environmental assessments that Canada undertakes each year. He intends to go from about 6,000 reviews each year to just a few hundred - possibly by dumping responsibilities on the provinces.
Kent's position, at least in Ontario, is preposterous. If you look at all the federal environmental assessments that Waterkeeper has been involved in recently, not a single one has been reviewed by the Province of Ontario: the Darlington new nuclear power plant, Cameco's waterfront redevelopment project in Port Hope, the FarmTech ethanol facility in Oshawa, and on and on. Ontario has been hands-off on environmental assessments for twenty years, when it used to oversee an often remarkably-effective environmental assessment program.
The truth is, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is often the only reason the environmental impacts of major projects are assessed or studied before construction begins. It is often the only reason the public is notified or given the chance to speak up when development threatens their community’s water or air. According to the Assembly of First Nations, the CEAA is also the main way aboriginal and treaty rights are addressed before major development projects proceed.
We do not know what the Committee's review of environmental assessments will mean for Canada. Our fingers are crossed.
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