The Alberta government is challenging the constitutionality of Ottawa’s recently passed environmental assessment law, arguing the new regime treads on the province’s power to regulate oil and gas development.
Premier Jason Kenney, who derided Bill C-69 as the “no more pipelines law” and urged Parliament to kill it, announced the legal challenge on Tuesday – a day before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to trigger a federal election campaign. Mr. Kenney won his own election this past spring on a promise to campaign against Mr. Trudeau and use the courts to challenge environmental laws and the federal carbon tax, which he views as unfair attacks on Alberta.
Mr. Kenney’s government has asked Alberta’s Court of Appeal to review whether the law, which received royal ascent in June, and regulations that took effect last month are constitutional.
He told an oil sector conference in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Tuesday that the law will further damage an industry that has already been battered for years by low oil prices.
“I know that some of my political adversaries would say this is political theatre, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Mr. Kenney said.
“It’s about the rule of law. It’s about the dream of an economic union. It’s about respect for the fundamental law of the land: the constitution of Canada.”
Bill C-69 was born out of Mr. Trudeau’s campaign promise four years ago to replace legislation brought in by the previous Conservative government that overhauled the environmental assessment system. The previous law, passed in 2012, reduced the ability of the public to participate in project reviews, eliminated protections for fish habitats and was too skewed in favour of resource companies.
The Liberals argued the new assessment regime will protect the environment and the rights of Indigenous communities while ensuring that good resource projects receive approval in a predictable review process. The law broadens the scope of assessments to include not only environmental impacts but also issues such as sustainability, gender, health and Indigenous reconciliation.
The Conservatives under Leader Andrew Scheer have pledged to repeal the law.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna wasn’t available for an interview but her press secretary defended the law in an e-mailed statement. Sabrina Kim said the legal challenge is a waste of money and she accused Mr. Kenney and Mr. Scheer of attempting to undermine environmental protections and ignore Indigenous rights.
Alberta’s Opposition New Democrats, whose Leader Rachel Notley was also a vocal critic of Bill C-69 when she was premier, issued a statement criticizing the law and acknowledging the need for a legal challenge.
Martin Olszynski, who teaches law at the University of Calgary, said previous court rulings have made it clear that the federal government has the authority to assess the environmental impact of resource projects, even though resource development falls within provincial jurisdiction.
“The constitutional principles that apply are settled and they’re very clear,” he said in an interview.
Prof. Olszynski said the assessment system that was created by Bill C-69 isn’t dramatically different than the previous law, which was passed when Mr. Kenney was in federal cabinet.
And he said many of the issues added to those assessments, such a greenhouse gas emissions and Indigenous rights, were already being considered, even if they weren’t spelled out in law.
“When you look at the legislation and you put it side by side with the old act, in terms of basic architecture, these laws are almost identical,” he said.