The Liberal government is feeling pressure from industry over a campaign pledge to restore regulations surrounding project permits and environmental assessments after a series of changes by the Conservative government in 2012.
The Trudeau government is planning to launch a consultation on the environmental assessment process, possibly this summer, and lobby groups are anticipating possible changes such as the relisting of specific rivers and navigable waters that the Harper government had removed from regulations.
The move is drawing lobbying activity from industry and environmental groups seeking to influence how and when Ottawa assesses new projects and protects waterways and habitats. At stake is both environmental protection and the industry and municipal costs of complying with regulations.
The Canadian Construction Association is among several groups and companies registered to lobby on the review, and says in its lobbying disclosure that it seeks to talk to the government about the Navigation Protection Act to "halt reforms that would relist all waterways across Canada, regardless of their navigability." The relisting of waters would create triggers requiring permits and environmental assessments for construction projects on smaller rivers and streams.
"The problem with the process before was that there were so many triggers," said the association's president, Michael Atkinson, referring to the rules before Conservative government's amendments in 2012 that reduced the requirements for project assessments. "Where it impacts us is where there is uncertainty [surrounding construction projects]: the green light has gone on, but it's flickering amber, and it could go red."
Mr. Atkinson, whose group represents local and provincial construction associations, said he wants clear rules and conditions for assessments and avoiding unnecessary duplication at the federal and provincial levels. "One might want to argue here that quantity is not as important as quality," he said.
Other companies or industry groups, among scores registered to lobby on the review of environmental assessments, include Shell Canada, the Canadian Electricity Association, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, Ontario Power Generation Inc., and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.
Environmental groups that have also registered include Watershed Watch Salmon Society and Canadian Wildlife Federation.
The federal ministers of Environment, Transport and Fisheries will be involved in the review. They are following up on a Liberal campaign platform promise to look at the Harper government's statutory changes with an aim to "restore lost protections, and incorporate more modern safeguards."
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in a speech on May 2 at an environmental event at the University of Ottawa, that she had been meeting with groups as part of "preparatory discussions" about how to improve the assessments processes. The Minister said she looked forward to receiving submissions about "the next generation of environmental assessment," according to speaking notes provided by her office.
One of the Minister's objectives in the review is "restoring robust oversight and thorough environmental assessments while also working with provinces and territories to avoid duplication," she said.
Since January, Ms. McKenna has had discussions with Suncor Energy Inc., Cenovus Energy Inc., the Canadian Electricity Association, the West Coast Environmental Law Association, Ecojustice Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, and many others, according to the lobbyist registry, though the subjects of the lobbying communications are as vague as "environment."
Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo are reviewing the Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act, also to "restore lost protections, and incorporate modern safeguards," according to those ministers' mandate letters from the Prime Minister.
The Conservative government, in its 2012 amendments, changed the name of the Navigable Waters Protection Act to the Navigation Protection Act, and removed navigable waters from the list that would require a project permit.
Under the former navigable-waters regime, projects seen as restricting the navigation of a waterway or stream by a canoe would require a permit and likely an environmental assessment. Mr. Atkinson said that requirement meant municipalities, in some cases, couldn't build a road over a creek, and instead would have to install a culvert enabling a canoe and passenger to pass under it.
Anna Johnston, staff counsel for West Coast Environmental Law, said the government could move back to a triggering approach for some environment assessments, as opposed to a list approach.
"It might be the case that in this review they'll decide to go back to the triggering approach, which means it will be really important to have strong legal protections for fish and water so that those triggers actually happen," she said. "Everyone has a concern, whether they want the laws to be stronger or whether they want them to stay the same."
Ms. Johnston was part of a coalition of environmental groups that sent a letter to Mr. Tootoo in March to "request that previous habitat protections be immediately reinstated in the Fisheries Act".
The Mining Association of Canada (MAC) says the new system that conducts environmental assessments based on project type created a regime that is unfair for the mining sector, as mines and mineral processing projects now make up the bulk of the work requiring reviews by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
"Canada basically went from doing 6,000 environmental assessments a year to under 100," said Pierre Gratton, president of the MAC. "We're now more or less the agency's only client."
Stephen Hazell, general counsel for Nature Canada, said the government appears to be taking a "big picture" look at the assessments process. "I'm optimistic that this public review they're going to start will have positive outcomes," he said.