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Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver makes an annoucnement about the oil sands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Dec. 8, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver makes an annoucnement about the oil sands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Dec. 8, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa promises speedier review of oil sands projects Add to ...

The federal government is working to speed into place changes this year to expedite the regulatory review of new industrial projects.

Ottawa plans to unveil new plans in “months, not years,” Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said in Calgary on Wednesday.

“It’s a matter of deep concern that our regulatory process is not as effective, efficient and expeditious as it should be. So if we’re going to deal with a time issue, we’re going to try to deal with it in a timely way,” he said.

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Doing so, Mr. Oliver said, will not require tearing apart the two pieces of federal legislation that currently govern new projects – the National Energy Board Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. He suggested, however, that the steps necessary are unlikely to be simple.

“We do have some focused ideas that we want to deal with,” he said. “It will require both legislative and regulatory change.”

Lengthy reviews of major new projects have been a long-standing complaint of industry, which has seen multi-year reviews for both mines and pipelines – including, most recently, the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline and the Northern Gateway oil line to the West Coast.

The two-year window allocated for hearings alone on the Gateway project, in particular, has spurred the federal government into action. In an open letter released earlier this month, Mr. Oliver made a blunt assessment: The system “is broken,” he wrote. “It’s time to take a look at it.”

Ottawa is looking to create “definitive timelines from start to finish on the regulatory process,” Mr. Oliver said several weeks ago. He has suggested that projects should be reviewed within two years of making an application. If regulators are able to stick to their current schedule, Gateway will take 3.5 years.

But even industry acknowledges the complexity of cutting red tape, a move that will likely require co-ordinating numerous efforts in Ottawa, and between federal and provincial governments.

“There’s a number of pieces of legislation at the federal level that impact the regulatory review process,” said Dave Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. He pointed to the National Energy Board Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, Species at Risk Act and the Fisheries Act.

Changes to regulatory processes might be easier, however. Mr. Collyer, for example, questioned the need for the panel assessing Northern Gateway to hear from the 4,500 people who have signed up to deliver oral comment. Each of those people has been allocated 10 minutes.

It would be a “much more efficient process” to ask people to make written submissions, he said. Canada could also raise the threshold on which projects must receive full environmental assessments, allowing numerous smaller initiatives to proceed more quickly.

“The allocation of resources is very inefficient right now because of the requirement that there be some form of environmental assessment on what are, at the end of the day, very small projects,” he said. “Devote the resources where it matters, and on those where the environmental risk is very low, don’t get into a complicated review process.”

Still, environmental advocates are concerned about how rapidly the government is moving to change the system, pointing to a series of reports – including one from the Royal Society of Canada – that suggest the country needs to do more work in evaluating projects.

“The world is watching Canada’s regulatory performance, and if we’re interested in selling our product, we should be strengthening that, not weakening it,” said Simon Dyer, a policy director at the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based think-tank focused on sustainable energy issues.

Mr. Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have also pointed to the intervention of foreign-funded, radical groups that seek to derail major resource projects through stalling tactics as one issue the government needs to address in its overhaul of the environmental review process. Environmentalists fear Mr. Harper and his minister are creating green bogeymen to justify draconian measures that would gut the review process.

“This doesn’t sound like an agenda to better protect the Canadian environment for the benefit of all Canadians,” said Rick Smith, president of Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based group. “It sounds like an agenda to gut environmental protection for the benefit of a few wealthy companies who don’t need the help.”

On major oil and gas projects, the National Energy Board is the lead agency but works with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency in joint reviews, as is being done now with the Northern Gateway project.

The Commons environment committee is conducting a review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and is expected to release its report in the coming weeks. New Democratic Party environment critic Megan Leslie said the Conservative majority on the committee prematurely ended its work, even as ministers have been insisting the review process is unwieldy and needs to be made more efficient and timely.

The NDP critic said witnesses at the hearings identified two problems: It can take too long for a project to get into the hearing process, and the Conservative government has neglected to properly staff the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. In fact, the agency has absorbed deep cuts to its budget in the past two years.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May said the Harper government has long used the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency as a “rhetorical whipping boy.” She now fears it is prepared to gut the agency.

“This is a government that wants a verdict first and evidence later,” Ms. May said. “Or a verdict first and evidence never.”

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