Don’t call off the watchdogs, give them teeth

The government seems to be forgetting its promise to pursue economic development that is environmentally responsible.

That’s what two authors write in a Comment published in today’s Globe and Mail. They decry the government’s move to waive federal environmental assessments of infrastructure projects funded by the Building Canada Plan.

The exemptions would bypass the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which aims to prevent environmental harm by assessing risks in advance and ensuring public participation in environmental decisions. The authors write:

The government’s desire to streamline the assessment process for projects unlikely to generate significant adverse environmental effects is legitimate…But the place for this change is during the legislation’s coming five-year review – not with dangerous exemptions.

Why dangerous? After all, [Environment Minister Jim] Prentice has proposed waivers only for the kinds of projects where experience has shown insignificant environmental effects.

Consider that an environmental assessment review panel recently concluded that Imperial Oil’s Kearl tar sands project – which will release emissions equivalent to an estimated 800,000 new passenger vehicles – will have “no significant environmental effects.” Are these the kinds of projects to be exempted?

The tar sands are an extreme example, but they illustrate the danger. More worrying is that this waiver is a sign of the government’s desire to severely gut the act during review.

The authors liken the decision to approve building projects without environmental assessments to buying a house without knowing the price. They go on to argue:

Waiving these requirements is a predictable reaction in times of economic crisis. But we saw the results of such “streamlining” during Ontario’s Common Sense Revolution. Have these lessons not led us past the point of equating environmental protection with economic harm?

Read the rest of the column here.