The federal government is asserting its control over pipelines – including the proposed Northern Gateway oil-sands project – taking from regulators the final word on approvals and limiting the ability of opponents to intervene in environmental assessments.
In proposed legislation unveiled by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver on Tuesday, the Harper government will clear away regulatory hurdles to the rapid development of Canada's natural resource bounty.
Ottawa is aiming to reduce the number of projects that undergo federal environmental assessment by exempting smaller developments completely and by handing over many large ones to the provinces. It will also bring in new measures to prevent project opponents from delaying the assessment process by flooding hearings with individuals who face no direct impacts but want to speak against the development.
At a Toronto press conference, Mr. Oliver said the proposed changes are aimed at providing quicker reviews in order to reduce regulatory uncertainty and thereby create more jobs and investment in Canada's booming resource sector.
"We are at a critical juncture because the global economy is now presenting Canada with an historic opportunity to take full advantage of our immense resources," he said. "But we must seize the moment. These opportunities won't last forever."
Resource-rich western provinces greeted the proposed changes warmly, saying they are eager to take over environmental assessments. Mr. Oliver said Ottawa will only transfer authority for project reviews to provinces that have similar standards as the federal government.
Provinces in central and Atlantic Canada were more cautious, wanting to know more details before drawing conclusions.
Environmental groups and some aboriginal leaders said the government is sacrificing environmental protection for development, and is intent on railroading all opposition to its vision of rapid development of oil sands and other resources.
A key flash point is the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oil-sands bitumen to the British Columbia coast for export to Asia by supertanker. The Harper government has insisted that it is a national priority to expand pipeline access for energy producers to access fast-growing Asian markets.
Mr. Oliver confirmed that the Northern Gateway project would fall under the new legislation which, according to federal background documents, would move the final decision on pipeline projects from the National Energy Board to the federal cabinet.
Under current rules, the board can reject an application that is deemed to have unacceptable environmental impacts, though it rarely has done so. Under new legislation, the cabinet has the final say, on advice from the regulatory board.
In addition to Enbridge Inc.'s Gateway project, Kinder Morgan Inc. is proposing an expansion of its TransMountain pipeline to bring 800,000 barrels per day of crude from Alberta to Vancouver harbour.
First nations communities in B.C. have vowed to challenge any federal approval of the Gateway project in the courts, arguing that Ottawa failed to properly consult them and had prejudged the review process by indicating its determination to proceed.
"We've always hoped that the panel was blessed with integrity but we haven't had a lot of evidence of that," said Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations group, which represents nine Indian nations in B.C.
As part of the legislative package, the government says it will improve its consultations with first nations by integrating them into the new environmental assessment act; providing more funding to help the communities participate, and working with the provinces to reduce duplicative efforts.
Mr. Sterritt said those goals sound worthwhile, but are being undermined by budget cuts in key departments like Fisheries and Oceans, and Environment Canada, and by the government's insistence that, at the end of the day, first nations have no veto over projects.
In its regulatory overhaul, Ottawa also intends to impose strict timelines for environmental assessments – two years for a panel like the one now reviewing the Gateway application.
The new rules will apply to the Northern Gateway pipeline project, and will likely result in a truncated hearings schedule, though the government has yet to spell out precisely how it will proceed with existing reviews. Officials could not rule out the possibility that people who are currently scheduled to appear before the review panel would be eliminated from the process under the new regulations.
After railing for months against radical environmentalists bent on blocking resource development, the minister signalled Tuesday that the government will cut environmentalists out of the assessment process unless they can prove that they would be directly affected by the project or have specific expertise needed by the panel.
Simon Dyer, policy director at Calgary-based Pembina Institute, said the government will be tilting the playing field tremendously in favour of the companies by limiting the participation of environmental groups in project reviews.
"The Alberta government has been very tightly enforcing this 'directly affected' status to the point where it is very difficult for anyone with an opposing view to an opponent to have their views aired at hearings," Mr. Dyer said.
"The process is already highly inequitable and this will make it far worse."
With files from Tu Thanh Ha