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Key senators are challenging assertions that the Liberal government’s project assessment legislation will result in speedier approvals for major resource projects.

At a committee hearing on Wednesday, some senators argued the legislation is too complex and lacking in clarity to give industry proponents any confidence that their projects won’t be bogged down in interminable reviews, with uncertain results and the likelihood of court challenges when controversial developments are approved.

Despite government promises that good projects will be approved more quickly than is currently the case, Bill C-69 has been labelled the “no pipelines bill” by opponents, with several provinces, including Alberta’s NDP government, demanding significant amendments.

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The battle over Bill C-69: Oil industry, government at odds as project review bill heads to Senate hearing

In testimony on Wednesday, senior officials said the legislation contains several features that will make the review process more predictable, including an early planning phase in which parties will identify key issues to be assessed; tighter timelines than currently exist, and greater accountability by requiring ministers to publish reasons for decisions they make throughout the process.

“This bill provides a predictable, time-bound process, from early planning through to the decision, to ensure that companies know what to expect and when,” said Stephen Lucas, deputy minister at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Had the process been available for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the government’s project approval would have been better able to withstand a court challenge, Christyne Tremblay, deputy minister at Natural Resources Canada, told the committee. In August, a Federal Court justice quashed the federal permit for the pipeline project, saying the National Energy Board had failed to properly assess effects of increased tanker traffic, and that the federal government did not adequately consult First Nations along the route.

Ms. Tremblay said those concerns would likely have been identified during the early planning phase, when the Impact Assessment Agency would work with project proponents and government departments to assess what issues are likely to be of concern, and together engage with Indigenous communities that would be affected by the project.

The Impact Assessment Agency will assume the role of reviewing pipeline projects from the current National Energy Board, which is being renamed the Canadian Energy Regulator and will remain involved in the review. The Impact Assessment Agency, formerly the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, will have a mandate to assess all effects − positive and negative − for a designated major project that would likely have adverse effects on the environment in areas of federal jurisdiction.

The federal government is expected to produce a list of such “designated projects,” but Alberta’s Independent Senator Paula Simons said the committee needs to know what types of projects will be on the list to properly do its job evaluating the legislation. The Alberta government has called for exemptions for non-mining oil sands projects, renewable-energy projects and petrochemicals developments.

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Conservative Senator Michael MacDonald noted Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have all urged the Senate to make amendments, and said some Atlantic provinces are not happy with the enhanced federal role for managing projects in the offshore. At a break after the session, Mr. MacDonald said that nothing he heard from the officials gave him any confidence Bill C-69 would deliver the kinds of results promised by the Liberal government.

“Officials at the committee this morning could not give any comfort to concerns that the complexity and detail and long prescriptive lists of factors to be considered in evaluating projects in this voluminous bill will enhance the risk of litigation that could drag on forever,” Mr. MacDonald said in an e-mail. “This complexity and detail in the bill could not only kill viable projects, but will drive investment away from Canada.”

The committee is planning to travel across the country to hear from Canadians who are affected by resource-industry development. Manitoba Senator Mary Jane McCallum said she expects the senators to visit communities that have been “devastated” by resource development to their voices, which she said have too often been ignored in project reviews.

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