4 Myths about Changes to Canada’s Environmental Laws

There’s been a whole lot of talk these past weeks about the future of Canada’s environmental laws. Are the Prime Minister’s proposed changes a much-needed streamlining of environmental reviews? Or are we witnessing the gutting and slashing of a generation’s worth of environmental protections?
After releasing a budge that clearly placed resource exports over environmental health, the government has followed through with legislative changes that severely weaken the environmental safety net that Canadians have long depended on for clean air, water and land.
Among other changes, the Conservative government will significantly reduce federal environmental oversight of natural resource development projects, impose limits on who can participate in environmental reviews and reduce the time permitted to review projects.
To defend these moves, the government has offered a variety of arguments that are, well, highly arguable. Here are just some of the myths circulating out there, along with a reality check:

 

Myth 1: Streamlining “environmental reviews for major projects will increase certainty for project investors”.

 

On the contrary, denying adequate public review of development projects and abandoning the federal government’s role in reviewing such projects are a recipe for conflict, litigation, and a patchwork of conflicting provincial measures that will result in uncertainty and unpredictable delay for projects.
Already, First Nations leaders have reacted to plans to cut short the approvals process for the Northern Gateway Project with threats of legal action, and law experts predict a raft of law suits that will tie up the project for years.
Pushing projects through, and limiting public involvement, will only serve to erode the public’s confidence in the project’s safety, a lack of support few investors would welcome.

 

Myth 2: Environmental reviews can be handed over to the provinces because “one project, one review” is all Canada needs.

 

It is the federal government’s number one job to protect the safety and security of its citizenry. Canadians depend on the federal government to safeguard our families and nature from pollution, toxic contamination and other direct threats to our physical well-being.
Eliminating or limiting federal environmental reviews means eliminating the environmental safety net for things like fish and fish habitat, which are the federal government’s legal
responsibility.

Provincial environmental assessment processes are inconsistent from each other and often weak, lacking key safeguards of the federal process.

 

Myth 3: Environmental review of projects hurts the economy, so strict time limits are needed to push projects through more quickly

History has taught us that rushed and superficial public review of megaprojects risks leaving taxpayers on the hook for multibillion dollar clean-up costs when things go wrong later. Think Giant Mine in Yellowknife. Or the pulp and paper mills of Dryden, Ontario.  Or radiation clean up in Port Hope.
The key purpose of environmental assessment is to “look before you leap” – that is, to carefully consider the long-term environmental consequences of a development proposal before deciding whether or how to proceed. While other federal laws are more reactive and not engaged until after damage to the environment has already occurred, environmental assessment is one of the few institutionalized processes Canada has developed to prevent environmentally harmful activities or projects from being approved in the first place.
By preventing problems before they start, environmental assessment is good for the economy. Making sure a project is environmentally sound before it begins is alot easier — and cheaper – than after the fact.  Just ask BP whether preventing an oil spill is a better option than having to clean one up.

Canada needs a measured and thoughtful approach that ensures that we approve projects that make the greatest contribution to a sustainable economy and put them in the right place, not a ‘rubber stamp’ for development at all costs.

 

Myth 4: Proposed legal changes “modernize” the regulatory process.

Dismantling Canada’s environmental laws, if done as planned, turns back the clock several decades. Canadians have spent 30 years working to build up our environmental laws so that the disasters of our past – the Sydney Tar Ponds, the death of Lake Erie, the Bennett Dam flooding – are not repeated. We are still paying for these disasters with compromised health and with taxpayer dollars.
(Thanks West Coast Environmental Law for sharing background material that helped me put this post together).