Proposed environmental changes in the federal government’s omnibus budget bill would dilute existing regulations, says the past-president of a local conservation group.
Chris Grooms, a member of the Kingston Field Naturalists, said it appears the intent of the proposed changes “is to weaken all the regulations.”
“They talk about efficiencies, that the environmental assessment process will be quicker and more efficient, but it’s all about weakening things,” said Grooms. “There are signs that they’re planning to exploit natural resources such as oil.
“It’s not about sustainability in the long term.”
The federal government has come under fire from environmental groups who say that putting the changes in the omnibus bill is an attempt to hide them so that Canadians won’t notice.
Bill C-38 — the Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act — introduces, amends or repeals nearly 70 federal laws.
About 150 of the pages in the 431-page budget bill involve rewriting federal environmental laws.
“It’s yet another kind of sign that the government sees the existing regulation structure and the broad environment is challenging to business,” said Warren Mabee, the director the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy. “They want to make things more business friendly and in the process created some waves. People are upset about how the government is going about this.”
The Conservatives, who hold a majority, voted last week to limit debate on the implementation of the bill, leaving all MPs with less than a week to debate it at second reading stage before it heads to committee.
The changes would affect, among others, the Environmental Assessment Act. To speed up approvals for projects such as pipelines, the government proposes scrapping the act and giving powers to the federal environment minister to decide which industrial projects have adverse impacts on the environment that require a review.
The Conservatives want to eliminate the existing law that requires environmental assessments for any project that receives federal funding, affects federal lands, is proposed by the federal government or is triggering provisions of an existing environmental law such as the Fisheries Act.
“One of the problems is that so many agencies need to be involved (in a hearing): Fisheries, Industry, Environmental,” said Mabee. “They’re looking at clearing up the overlap and trying to designate a lead agency to take control.”
The proposed changes would also affect the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act and the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act.
“All the acts are big, complicated pieces of legislation to begin with,” said Mabee. “To slash and burn, to take out pieces and to replace them with (processes) to make things go faster may do more harm than good.”
Grooms is particularly concerned over proposed changes to the Fisheries and Species at Risk acts.
In the latter, endangered or threatened species in Canada will see reduced protection under the bill because companies will no longer be required to renew permits on projects that threaten critical habitat of species listed under the act. Under the changes, the National Energy Board would be exempt from a requirement to impose conditions to protect critical habitat under a project that it approves.
“They’re not doing enough to protect the Species at Risk Act,” he said. “We’re losing forests and all kinds of wildlife habitat.
“This is not part of the sustainable picture.”
The Fisheries Act will no longer be required to protect fish habitat and instead would focus on supporting “commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries.”
“It’s one of our strongest pieces of legislation,” said Grooms of the Fisheries Act, which dates back to Confederation. “It was written well, at a time when people understood that fisheries helped sustain us. It was part of our economy and natural heritage.
“It was relied upon by all sorts of conservation bodies to protect upland habitat that would affect fish habitat. A lot of that might be jeopardized.”
Mabee said there’s nothing wrong with making regulations more efficient, but warned it could have an adverse affect.
“One of the best things about (the bill) is that it has the potential to streamline regulations that in many cases have overlapped and made things difficult over the years,” he said. “No one group had the lead over the other groups.
“The danger is that you throw the baby out with the bath water. To streamline things, you end up causing damage to the environment.”
Since the Conservatives have a majority, Grooms is resigned to the environmental changes being passed.
“It doesn’t look good until there’s a change in government,” he said. “The problem is with the attitude of our government. We need a more balanced approach. We need a minority government or one of the other parties (in power).
“The government has a seeming ideological drive.”
The bill would also limit charities, including environmental groups, that advocate for better laws and policies from spending more than 10% of their funds on political action. The bill would also shut citizens’ groups out of environmental reviews for pipelines.
“If they weaken these groups, it’s bad for society and bad for the environment,” said Grooms.
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