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Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver unveils a federal plan to streamline the environmental review process for major projects at a Toronto news conference on April 17, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver unveils a federal plan to streamline the environmental review process for major projects at a Toronto news conference on April 17, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Environmental-review proposal met with western praise, eastern caution Add to ...

Ottawa’s plan to streamline the environmental review system is being welcomed in western provinces, where economic growth hinges on natural resources, while eastern provinces had more measured reactions to the idea.

The federal government announced Tuesday it wants to overhaul the review process for major economic projects. Ottawa will only keep environmental oversight of major economic projects, handing much of the remaining responsibility to the provinces, as long as they meet federal law requirements.

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In British Columbia, the news came as the incumbent Liberals are betting on an expansion of the oil and gas industry in the northern part of the province. Environmental oversight made news when the B.C. review process approved the Prosperity mine proposal to extract gold and copper at Fish Lake, only to have the federal review turned it down.

B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake welcomed the changes, noting that his government has been pressing Ottawa for a “one-project, one-review” regime for years.

“We feel that to remove the duplication and overlap will have real benefits to British Columbia,” he said in an interview. “This isn't about reducing the bar for environmental assessment.”

However he said he still has questions for the federal government about how the new review process will work.

The B.C. environmental review process is different that the federal one, and he said he is unclear about whether the province will have to change the way it reviews projects in order to meet federal requirements.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford said she was confident the federal proposal’s legislative details will match her province's efforts to create a one-stop review process.

“We’re very supportive of the direction that they are taking,” Ms. Redford said.

Noting the less enthusiastic response in eastern Canada, she added that, “in Alberta, we are just as concerned about economic development as environmental sustainability.

“And we make sure we’re taking the time to speak to Canadians across the country as to why it is possible to ensure this regulatory process protects all of Canada and allows our economy to continue to grow.”

(Ms. Redford is in the midst of an election campaign. Her main rival, Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Party, declined to comment.)

In Saskatchewan, where the resource sector is flourishing, Premier Brad Wall also hailed Ottawa’s proposal. “It ... sends a good signal to those that invest, that they will not face undue delay.”

He said it was appropriate for the federal government to reserve the right to undertake environmental assessments in some situations, such as where a project could affect more than one province. For instance, he said, Saskatchewan’s government wants to protect its lakes, some of which lie downwind and downstream from Alberta’s oil sands.

“We want to make sure we have a rigorous environmental assessment process,” Mr. Wall said. “But we don’t think that means we need two. This is welcome news and we thank the federal government for doing this.”

The tone was more cautious in Manitoba and further east.

While saying it supports any move to reduce duplications, the government of Manitoba said in a statement that "we do not support the erosion of environmental protection. We will use that perspective when analyzing the fine print of the federal government's decision."

“I don’t think we can be against making it more efficient. However I have certain reservations,” Quebec Environment Minister Pierre Arcand said.

He noted that any development in the St. Lawrence River would currently fall under a double jurisdiction. “Quebec and Ottawa each have a role to play. If the federal government withdraws from exercising its role than we will have some questions to ask and we will express our concerns regarding this. But first I have to wait and see and examine exactly what Ottawa will do.”

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he is prepared to consider any efficiencies into the way the federal government and the provinces conduct environmental assessments. On a number of projects, he said, the existing regime requires both the federal and provincial governments to carry out their own separate assessments.

“If there is a way for either one of us to take on a responsibility that does not compromise our heavy responsibility to protect the environment for ourselves and our families, then we are open to that,” Mr. McGuinty told reporters Tuesday. “Having said that, I have yet to see specifics that are being put forward by the federal government.”

Nova Scotia Environment Minister Sterling Beliveau and his New Brunswick counterpart, Bruce Fitch, supported the idea of eliminating duplication but said they wanted to see more details first.

“Of course my biggest concern is to ensure the environmental protection for the province is in place,” Mr. Fitch said.

Justine Hunter in Victoria, Carrie Tait in Calgary, Rhéal Séguin in Quebec City, Tu Thanh Ha, Adrian Morrow and Karen Howlett in Toronto, Jane Taber in Halifax.

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