The B.C. government won a long-standing fight with Ottawa over environmental reviews in the federal budget tabled Thursday, paving the way for faster decisions on major projects including the controversial Enbridge Gateway pipeline proposal.
For years, British Columbia has been lobbying for a single environmental assessment process, arguing that investments in the province have been held up by lengthy and overlapping approval regimes. On Thursday, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced a "one-project, one-review" approach that will limit the decision-making process on major economic projects to 24 months.
The changes appear to take direct aim at the fervent opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline, the $6.6-billion project that would export Alberta's oil-sands crude to Asia and California.
The federal changes, in addition to fast-tracking reviews, include measures that are shaped to address concerns about oil tanker traffic that would come with the pipeline and provide more money for consultations with first nations, who are among the leading opponents of the project.
The budget promises tougher tanker inspections and better navigation charts, new regulations related to oil spills and a review by an independent, international panel of tanker safety experts.
B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon told reporters Thursday the streamlining of environmental assessments is a big win for his government. "We have many major projects on the table today that are in the billions of dollars that could have important ramifications for jobs and employment and revenues," he told reporters. "That is a very positive response."
He insisted the changes will not lead to cutting corners on environmental standards.
"You should not measure your environmental process based on how long the process takes," he said. The changes mean that depending on the issue, either Victoria or Ottawa will take the lead rather than duplicating reviews. In matters relating to fisheries, for example, the federal process would take over.
But Mr. Falcon predicted nothing will calm the debate over the Enbridge pipeline in B.C.
"I think there will be an inflamed debate around that pipeline no matter what happens."
The B.C. government has refused to take a position on the Gateway pipeline, caught between the desire to position the province as Canada's access point to Asia, and the environmental opposition at home. However Premier Christy Clark has suggested British Columbians need to see more financial benefits.
Kennedy Stewart, the New Democratic Party MP for Burnaby-Douglas, said he was shocked to learn that the changes will be retroactive, meaning that the two-year time limit on reviews will apply to the Gateway hearings.
"It opens B.C. to have pipelines crisscrossing across it," he said in an interview. "The West Coast is going to have hundreds of oil tankers going off to China. That's their only plan for economic development for this country: They'll let China stick a big straw in Alberta and suck all the oil out. They don't care how British Columbians feel about it."
He dismissed the other measures to provide stronger regulation around oil tanker traffic. "It's going to go over like a lead zeppelin in B.C.," Mr. Stewart said.
Overall, Mr. Falcon applauded the federal budget for striking a balance between spending restraint without destabilizing cuts. However the province did not gain ground on the two key areas where he had hoped to see change.
The province is worried about absorbing additional justice costs due to the new federal crime bill and got no relief in Thursday's budget. And B.C. Premier Christy Clark had pushed hard for a new per capita formula for the Canada Health Transfers to make allowances for higher costs for seniors.
"They still haven't moved where we would like to see them move," he said. "We will continue to push for that."
He said it is possible British Columbia will face a greater burden due to the pension changes, but he said more work needs to be done to assess the impact.